Blue: What we talk about when we talk about net neutrality

Brandon Blue

Is a man not entitled to the Internet, somehow?

No, says the man in the corporation, unless he pays me!

No, says the man in the statehouse, unless everyone pays me!

No, says the man in his home, unless he pays no one!

The Internet is an unusual thing. While run like a business, it’s more like a public service. In one way or another all of our lives intersect with it somehow, and in that sense we all have a stake in the outcome of the ongoing net neutrality debate.

By now the basics are tired and worn. Large Internet service providers see that websites such as YouTube and Netflix devour bandwidth while still being simply one website. It costs users the same to get to YouTube as it does to Drudge, but the latter is still a jumble of HTML hyperlinks and nothing more, while the former is pretty clearly the future of the Internet. ISPs, naturally, want a heaping helping of that money cake. And as Burke would tell us, all that is required for evil’s triumph is that good men do nothing.

H.L. Mencken, on the other hand, will remind us “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed — and hence clamorous to be led to safety — by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” The government, seemingly benevolent in its concern for a free and open Internet, kindly stepped in on behalf of the consumer to do to ISPs what Kathy Bates’ character did to James Caan’s in “Misery.”

I have but one question — OK, three — at this juncture.

Why? Why now? Why is this necessary?

Section 202 of the Communications Act of 1934 states that “it shall be unlawful for any common carrier to make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges,” as well as ” to subject any particular person, class of persons, or locality to any undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage.”

Why they would move broadband providers out of that section I can’t say, but in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in National Cable & Telecommunications Association v. Brand X Internet Services that the FCC had the final say in whether cable companies — and cable Internet providers — were information services or telecommunications services. Opting for the former, the FCC kept Internet companies from Section 202.

The FCC decided Comcast was in the wrong in 2008 when it cut off users hoarding bandwidth and sites like BitTorrent. This set a precedent challenged just last month by Verizon, who stated that the FCC hasn’t got the regulatory authority to do so. The FCC, in response, claimed Verizon filed its net neutrality suit too early.

So sorry, guys.

History lesson is over. Where does that leave us?

As Netflix stated in their last letter to their shareholders, ISPs spend less than a penny for every gigabyte they send over their networks. The costs are trivial; there is no real reason that ISPs would begin charging more for their services in such a way that warrants the FCC’s involvement.

At the same time, it should be stated that the government is not regulating the Internet. They are regulating access to it. Completely different issues. That said, the FCC appears to have overstepped its bounds in cracking down on Comcast.

In moving forward, I see two options for providers. They can focus, as they do now, on managing current traffic. To do this by charging more for access to certain sites over others is tantamount to suicide. Government regulations longer than Mr. Fantastic’s arm are far preferable to angry customers.

Their other option is to focus resources on expanding data-transferal technology. If Netflix is wrong in stating that providers spend less than a penny to transfer a gigabyte of information across their networks, if it costs them enough that they should now knuckle down and start charging with a hierarchical system, this is the option they ought to invest in.

In the end, it’s all a shell game. The same ball under the “corporation” cup and under the “government” cup is under neither cup. Corporations will at some point start to monkey around with prices. Government agencies will, at that point, overstep their authorities again.

So which cup do we put our confidence, and our money, in?