The notion of net neutrality is an enticing concept, a utopian vision of an unfettered information superhighway. But, like most utopian visions, it also is unrealistic and unsustainable.
The Federal Communications Commission is about to propose updated rules that will allow Internet service providers to charge broadband customers more for speedier service — throwing a monkey wrench into what is known as net neutrality. The very, very short explanation for an exceedingly complicated subject: Companies that are willing to pay for premium accessibility will have better delivery systems at their disposal.
In other words, content providers will get what they pay for — which happens to be one of the hallmarks of capitalism. The foundation of an economic system that has served this country rather well since its founding is thus: An entrepreneur or a company comes up with an idea, it invests in that idea, and if it effectively markets and produces that idea, consumers will buy it and allow the company to grow. In the case of startup Internet companies, if the idea is good enough, it will attract investors who see the potential for a return on that investment.
In spite of that, the idea of changes to the policy has been met with sky-is-falling proclamations. Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union, told the Los Angeles Times, “It could create a tiered Internet where consumers either pay more for content and speed, or get left behind with fewer choices.” Or, as Tim Wu wrote in The New Yorker: “This is what one might call a net-discrimination rule, and, if enacted, it will profoundly change the Internet as a platform for free speech and small-scale innovation. It threatens to make the Internet just like everything else in American society: unequal in a way that deeply threatens our long-term prosperity.” Actually, free speech still will be quite abundant on the Internet, and the idea that our long-term prosperity will be hampered is true only if one imagines such prosperity to be linked to an everything-is-free ideal, which it never has been.
The utopian vision is that all content providers — everything from Netflix and Google to Auntie Em’s Online Video Emporium — should have access to the same quality of broadband. But such an ideal runs counter to the reality that generates innovation. George Foote, a Washington, D.C., lawyer for telecommunications companies, said: “Allowing higher charges for faster speeds is consistent with a policy of attracting more investment . . . and improving broadband for all users.”
Improving broadband — and future incarnations — is the ultimate goal. The disagreements revolve around the best fashion for ensuring those improvements. It is shortsighted to suggest that the FCC proposal was created out of some desire to harm consumers in favor of big business. First of all, the FCC must make changes to net neutrality. The agency’s rules twice have been struck down in federal court, most recently in January. Second of all, FCC Chairman Ted Wheeler said: “To be very direct, the proposal would establish that behavior harmful to consumers or competition by limiting the openness of the Internet will not be permitted.”
It’s a fine line, and it’s one that will require subtlety on the part of regulators rather than the ideological certainty embraced by critics of the proposed new policy, which is expected to be spelled out May 15 at a commission meeting. When that time comes, utopians are likely to find plenty to complain about; realists are likely to have a more nuanced reaction.