Net Neutrality Is Not a Rational Debate
Discrimination, blocking, throttling. The language itself is that of the civil rights struggle, of intolerance and tyranny. One envisages the oppressor's hand around the citizen's throat. And the street scenes are reminiscent of a demonstration against some unjust war in a far-off land, with placard-waving protestors outraged by the abuses they have witnessed.
But this is not an anti-war demonstration or 1950s Alabama. It is about the Internet, a planet-encompassing jumble of fiber-optic cables and unspectacular buildings, and whether its stewards are undermining it as a democratic institution and spur to innovation. Welcome to the net neutrality debate, where scaremongering, irrationality and hyperbole are never in short supply.
Even the basic premise is problematic. To its most committed supporters, a net neutral Internet is no less a human right than freedom of expression. If the operators of broadband networks are allowed to restrict access to some services, or charge more for a particular application, the Internet will become a forum for corporate giants. Quieter voices will be excluded, no matter how original and important they might sound.
But this notion of the Internet as a universal right is counterintuitive, largely because the Internet's circuitry and wiring are often not publicly owned property, in the way that a road or railway might still be. Forcing a broadband operator to carry some content at a stipulated fee seems little different from requiring a supermarket to stock products it dislikes at prices it cannot control. This point is not new, of course. The placard bearers' response is that the Internet has become too important a tool for the exchange of ideas and information to be vandalized by its very owners. Like good corporate citizens, they must be forced to protect it.
Yet precisely what this protection should entail is not clear cut. For instance, does "discrimination" extend to the "zero-rating" practice of bundling some Internet services into a smartphone plan, and not counting usage against monthly data limits? This has certainly prompted a backlash from net neutrality supporters in some countries, even if other observers deem it acceptable.
The absence of legal precedent in a technology market that is still so immature explains much of the uncertainty. The launch of 5G will sow more. Telcos are drawn to this next-generation technology largely because it will help them to provide many different types of network service over the same physical infrastructure. Imagine a narrowband link for smart meters, a low-latency connection for self-driving cars and an ultrafast broadband service for TV -- all delivered over the same hardware. Exciting as this sounds to an operator, it potentially describes the sort of "prioritization" that has the net neutrality fanatics slavering beneath their banners. (See How 5G Could Digitally Divide in a Post Net Neutrality World, DT: 5G Network Slicing Lacks Clear Definition 5G Calls for EU Rethink on Net Neutrality and Net Neutrality Rules Threaten 5G, NFV Telenor.)
None of this means telcos should have free rein. Without appropriate checks and balances, there is always the danger that a dominant company will abuse its position through unfair pricing, or by stopping an Internet company from using its network. This has already happened. But it has not led to Armageddon. Some cases have been dealt with under existing competition laws. And certain risks have surely receded as telcos have given up battling Internet companies once perceived as a service threat. The idea that an operator would impede an Internet telephony or messaging provider seems anachronistic.
Is some places, competition itself has been the ultimate safeguard. Indeed, the current furore over net neutrality in the US -- with its arcane Title I and Title II rules -- has obscured the real problem in that market: the lack of broadband competition. Across vast swathes of the US, households have access to just one broadband provider. Relatively few Americans are presented with a choice of three or more. When there is no one else offering an alternative way, abuses are so much more likely. (See Fed Watch: AT&T, Net Neutrality & More and Pai's FCC Raises Alarms at Competitive Carriers.)
The irony is that Americans have now got the no-holds-barred system the giant telcos have long craved, while Europe, with its bustling broadband markets, seems keen to bind itself in more red tape. Net neutrality was not even a topic of discussion in Europe a decade ago. Now, influenced by US trendsetters, its legislators are on a fanatic's mission to enshrine the principle in complicated directives, whatever it eventually means. On both sides of the Atlantic, commonsense has gone out of the window.
In the meantime, the problem that net neutrality is meant to address is already upon us -- and not because of legislative shortcomings on net neutrality. Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN), Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Facebook and Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), the four horsemen of the technopocalypse, are omnipresent and unavoidable. They have been able to monopolize the Internet through their own technology might and the power of non-technological network effects, not because of zero rating. Any startup challenge to their dominance can be swiftly crushed through takeover or by replicating that company's services. Net neutrality is just a distraction.
Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading