Opposing Viewpoints on Network Neutrality

by on September 2, 2008 · 12 comments

I contributed the Cato institute’s side in this debate at Opposing Viewpoints. I took the “no” position to the question “Should the Government Regulate Net Neutrality?” Arguing opposite are the Save the Internet coalition, the Open Internet Coalition, and Public Knowledge.

I wrote my points before seeing the other peoples’ contributions, but my take on the debate is best summarized by this comment which should be appearing on the site in the near future:

What’s striking about the arguments of all three pro-regulation contributors is that while they adopt the rhetoric of urgency, none of them has offered a specific explanation of what will happen if Congress does not enact new regulations. It may very well be true that the major incumbents would like to transform the Internet into a proprietary network, but thus far, there are precious few examples of them actually attempting to do so. Indeed, the only example of any significance that they’ve been able to cite is Comcast’s interference with BitTorrent. And that example certainly doesn’t support their argument.

Comcast interfered in a relatively minor way with one of the dozens of applications on the Internet. For its trouble, the company got a bunch of negative publicity, a customer backlash, and (thanks to header encryption technology) no real control over the use of BitTorrent on its network. By March, Comcast was in full-scale retreat, signing an agreement with BitTorrent, Inc, and pledging to stop blocking BitTorrent traffic by the end of the year.

By the time the FCC ruled on the issue in July, its involvement had been rendered completely superfluous by the progress of events. Comcast wasn’t posing a looming threat to network neutrality that the FCC had beaten back. Comcast had already surrendered months ago, and the FCC showed up long after the battle was over to claim credit for the victory.

The other examples network neutrality activists like to cite are even weaker. For example, Verizon briefly refused to give an SMS short code to a pro-choice group. Not only did this incident have nothing to do with the Internet, but Verizon voluntarily reversed itself just a few days later. Once again, any regulatory response would have been far too late to make a difference.

In short, there’s no “precipice” here. Network owners don’t have a magic wand that will transform the Internet into a proprietary network. The filtering and blocking tools network providers do have are clumsy and easily circumvented. There are plenty of people monitoring broadband providers’ behavior, and they will ensure that any network neutrality violations get widely publicized. Network owners saw what happened to Comcast, and they learned that interfering with network neutrality is a bad business strategy: it’s more likely to produce angry customers than larger profits.

The advocates of new regulation have been predicting the imminent death of network neutrality for three years now. Yet network neutrality is no more endangered today than it was at the height of the Congressional debate over network neutrality in 2006. If we do start to see real evidence that technological and market forces are inadequate to protect the neutral Internet, there will be plenty of time to debate and pass appropriate regulations at that point. But it would be a mistake to pass new regulations now based on purely speculative concerns.

  • http://www.cordblomquist.com cordblomquist

    This is absolutely excellent. But do we think that Comcast reacted so quickly because of public pressure or because that public pressure could translate into political pressure? If neutrality wasn't a politicized issue would Comcast have backed down on the neutrality issue?

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Don't they call this “negotiating in the shadow of the law” or something like that?

  • Number9

    “If we do start to see real evidence that technological and market forces are inadequate to protect the neutral Internet, there will be plenty of time to debate and pass appropriate regulations at that point.”

    So you essentially do agree with the principle of net neutrality, but you don't think that it is necessary to implement at the moment because it hasn't been violated yet. On one hand, I'd like to see a preventative solution to make sure there is no lasting damage done if it finally does occur. On the other hand, it's pretty easy to over-regulate or miss something when we don't know exactly how net neutrality will be violated.

    “filtering and blocking tools network providers do have are clumsy and easily circumvented. There are plenty of people monitoring broadband providers’ behavior, and they will ensure that any network neutrality violations get widely publicized.”

    Let's not get stuck in the bubble here. Most people don't even know that filtering exists or what net neutrality is. The “publicity” that violations will generate will only reach people who have been following the debate or happened to catch a very simplified explanation of net neutrality on a Youtube video. One thing I don't know enough about, though: was there a huge consumer backlash against Comcast for its filtering? The web certainly had its share of debate, but I don't recall it being something the mainstream new about.

  • http://www.tc.umn.edu/~leex1008 Tim Lee

    So you essentially do agree with the principle of net neutrality, but you don't think that it is necessary to implement at the moment because it hasn't been violated yet.

    Network neutrality the technical principle was “implemented” back in the 1980s. I think the record so far suggests that non-regulatory forces will be sufficient to preserve it.

    One thing I don't know enough about, though: was there a huge consumer backlash against Comcast for its filtering? The web certainly had its share of debate, but I don't recall it being something the mainstream new about.

    Well, obviously it got the most attention among customers who use BitTorrent and techies who are paying close attention to the debate. Since most mainstream users don't use BitTorrent, they didn't pay much attention. But this is precisely why I think more ambitious attempts at network discrimination will get more attention. if Comcast tried to block something that most people do use, like YouTube, CNN, or World of Warcraft, you'd see a proportionately bigger public backlash.

  • http://www.tc.umn.edu/~leex1008 Tim Lee

    Well, obviously it's hard to be sure. I can't read the minds of Comcast's executives, and we can't predict what the world would look like had NN never become a political issue. And indeed, I'm not sure we can cleanly separate the two. A lot of people who support network neutrality also support network neutrality regulation. They don't necessarily delineate the two the way libertarians do. So I'm not sure you can clearly separate the “political backlash” from the “market backlash.” Many of Comcast's critics wore both a “customer” hat and a “voter” hat. Both hats gave them reason to pay attention to what they had to say.

    In any event, it's clear that more regulation isn't necessary. Some combination of market forces and the threat of regulatory intervention is making broadband incumbents behave themselves. I'm not entirely comfortable with the second half of that equation, but either way, enacting formal regulations has considerable downsides and no real upside.

  • http://www.blurringborders.com kdonovan11

    Cord's point is what I thought of.

    I actually think the best thing we can do for net neutrality (as a desired goal but fearful of government's hand) is to have dedicated activists like Save the Internet dual with smart responders like you guys at Cato. Though the sustainability of that is questionable…

  • http://www.tc.umn.edu/~leex1008 Tim Lee

    So you essentially do agree with the principle of net neutrality, but you don't think that it is necessary to implement at the moment because it hasn't been violated yet.

    Network neutrality the technical principle was “implemented” back in the 1980s. I think the record so far suggests that non-regulatory forces will be sufficient to preserve it.

    One thing I don't know enough about, though: was there a huge consumer backlash against Comcast for its filtering? The web certainly had its share of debate, but I don't recall it being something the mainstream new about.

    Well, obviously it got the most attention among customers who use BitTorrent and techies who are paying close attention to the debate. Since most mainstream users don't use BitTorrent, they didn't pay much attention. But this is precisely why I think more ambitious attempts at network discrimination will get more attention. if Comcast tried to block something that most people do use, like YouTube, CNN, or World of Warcraft, you'd see a proportionately bigger public backlash.

  • http://www.tc.umn.edu/~leex1008 Tim Lee

    Well, obviously it's hard to be sure. I can't read the minds of Comcast's executives, and we can't predict what the world would look like had NN never become a political issue. And indeed, I'm not sure we can cleanly separate the two. A lot of people who support network neutrality also support network neutrality regulation. They don't necessarily delineate the two the way libertarians do. So I'm not sure you can clearly separate the “political backlash” from the “market backlash.” Many of Comcast's critics wore both a “customer” hat and a “voter” hat. Both hats gave them reason to pay attention to what they had to say.

    In any event, it's clear that more regulation isn't necessary. Some combination of market forces and the threat of regulatory intervention is making broadband incumbents behave themselves. I'm not entirely comfortable with the second half of that equation, but either way, enacting formal regulations has considerable downsides and no real upside.

  • http://blurringborders.com Kevin Donovan

    Cord's point is what I thought of.

    I actually think the best thing we can do for net neutrality (as a desired goal but fearful of government's hand) is to have dedicated activists like Save the Internet dual with smart responders like you guys at Cato. Though the sustainability of that is questionable…

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