The “Problem of Proportionality” in the Debate over Net Neutrality

by on December 21, 2009 · 7 comments

Last week I commented on a severely one-sided FCC net neutrality hearing that featured a endless parade of horribles being prophesied by virtually every speaker. The litany of spooky stories became tedious and absurd. Everyone foretold of the impending doom that awaits unless government intervenes to save us from various corporate conspiracies to “silence” our voices.  Unsurprisingly, evidence was in short supply. It was pure Chicken Little poppycock.

This got me thinking again about what I have referred to as the “problem of proportionality.” I have discussed the problem of proportionality in the context of public policy debates about online safety and privacy, but it seems equally applicable to debates about net neutrality. Here’s how I explained the “problem of proportionality” in an earlier essay:

let’s think about how some of our lawmakers and media personalities talk about the Internet.  If we were to judge the Internet based upon the daily headlines in various media outlets or from the titles of various Congressional or regulatory agency hearings, then we’d be led to believe that the Internet is a scary, dangerous place. That ’s especially the case when it comes to concerns about online privacy and child safety. Everywhere you turn there’s a bogeyman story about the supposed dangers of cyberspace. But let’s go back to the numbers. While I certainly understand the concerns many folks have about their personal privacy or their child’s safety online, the fact is the vast majority of online transactions that take place online each and every second of the day are of an entirely harmless, even socially beneficial nature.  I refer to this disconnect as the “problem of proportionality” in debates about online safety and privacy. People are not just making mountains out of molehills, in many cases they are just making the molehills up or blowing them massively out of proportion.

Again, much the same is true of net neutrality. Indeed, it is even more true since actual net neutrality “incidents” are so hard to come by.  I was reminded of this recently when I was reading some stats posted over at the Verizon Policy Blog by Link Hoewing, Verizon’s Assistant Vice President of Internet and Technology Issues. Link wrote, “every day over Verizon’s network, 100 million people connect using a cell phone, landline phone or broadband connection. The amount of information they send back and forth is staggering:”

  • 1.7 billion text messages exchanged
  • 50 million video/pictures exchanged
  • 400 million e-mails received
  • 8.7 petabytes of video streamed—the equivalent of 4 million full-length movies
  • 1 billion phone calls connected

Indeed, those are staggering numbers. And I have seen similar numbers from other operators, although not quite as large as this.

But what I find most remarkable when I hear data about daily traffic volume is that all this activity is taking place without a peep about net neutrality “violations,” you know, like those nefarious-minded corporate conspiracies to “silence” us by blocking speech or expression.  Now, how can that be?  After all, we don’t have a net neutrality law on the books today.  There’s nothing stopping these carriers from engaging in the sort of behavior the worrywarts were predicting at last week’s hearing.

Of course, the critics would counter with the old “it’s-only-a-matter-of-time!” argument, or claim that the operators are on their best behavior right now because so many are watching for potential net neutrality violations. But there’s no way to prove that one way or the other. It’s all just conjecture at this stage. Regardless, the fact remains: trying to find actual net neutrality “violations” today is not just needle-in-the-haystack hard, it’s darn near impossible.

The better explanation for why that is the case comes down to simple economics and sound business practices: (1) ISPs have no incentive to block traffic since they only make money make money by carrying more content, not less; and (2) angering customers and getting a bad rap with the press is really bad for business — as in lost customers, lost shareholders, and therefore, lost profits.

So, it’s important to bring a little sanity and proportionality back to debates about net neutrality. There’s just no evidence supporting the horror stories bandied about about pro-regulatory critics. Billions of transactions are taking place online each and every day without any neutrality “violations” whatsoever.

  • mwendy

    Adam, don't let the facts confuse the situation. “No harm” arguments don't sell newspapers. And, you can't raise PAC dollars if everything works. Moreover, if all's well, then there's no reason for those huge administrative agencies – they need something to do, ya' know.

    Don't be a buzzkill; agencies, the Free Press, the media want you to keep your facts to yourself :-) Then they can get on with the Redistribution.

  • flawedskull

    Adam

    Sorry for the threadjack, but can you enlighten us rubes as to TLFs opinion on the new “cybersecurity czar” ? It sounds messed up to me. Will he be able to impose regulations on private networks?

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    Unsurprisingly, evidence was in short supply.

    Oh, really?

    http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/2007/08/14/w

    http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/2008/03/05/w

  • mwendy

    Mr. Enigma, there are literally trillions of Internet packets going over the Internet daily, with no problems. These alleged occurrences (albeit, from some good music festivals), now almost 3 years old, mean nothing. The market has left whatever those issues were in the dust. The FCC itself cites only two “major” problems to justify its new rules – Madison River and Comcast – both “corrected” either through consent decree (talk about repression) or private agreement (as well as some questionable agency authority).

    I don't want agency repression. Check out the CFR and you'll get an idea of where it can go. Thousands of pages of telecom rules that technology and markets have largely outstripped.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    There are many other examples, such as:

    WHNT’s Technical Glitches
    The New York Times | Editorial
    Wednesday 27 February 2008

    In 1955, when WLBT-TV, the NBC affiliate in Jackson, Miss., did not want to run a network report about racial desegregation, it famously hung up the sign: “Sorry, Cable Trouble.” Audiences in northern Alabama might have suspected the same tactics when WHNT-TV, the CBS affiliate, went dark Sunday evening during a “60 minutes” segment that strongly suggested that Don Siegelman, Alabama’s former Democratic governor, was wrongly convicted of corruption last year.

    These are not minor, I would recall MLK: “A threat to freedom anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

  • http://srynas.blogspot.com/ Steve R.

    Casually reviewing various news sources discloses many occurrences of companies attempting to game the system to deprive customers of choice. TechDirt is reporting that CenturyLink Won't Provide DSL, Wants To Block Competitor From Getting Fed Funds To Offer Wireless. The underlying article by Randy King writes: “But CenturyLink would have none of it, despite the fact it was not willing to provide service to those unserved areas either. The phone company filed an objection with the agency administering the stimulus program claiming ESI would be overbuilding a competing broadband provider in its service area:” Clearly, if companies are willing to manipulate the the availability of service, it doesn't take much intelligence to deduce that companies will also not abide to the concepts of Net Neutrality. The evidence is there, all you have to do is look and disclose.

  • http://srynas.blogspot.com/ Steve R.

    Casually reviewing various news sources discloses many occurrences of companies attempting to game the system to deprive customers of choice. TechDirt is reporting that CenturyLink Won't Provide DSL, Wants To Block Competitor From Getting Fed Funds To Offer Wireless. The underlying article by Randy King writes: “But CenturyLink would have none of it, despite the fact it was not willing to provide service to those unserved areas either. The phone company filed an objection with the agency administering the stimulus program claiming ESI would be overbuilding a competing broadband provider in its service area:” Clearly, if companies are willing to manipulate the the availability of service and eliminate the freedom of choice, it doesn't take much intelligence to deduce that companies will make a mockery of complying with Net Neutrality principles. The evidence is there, all one has to do is look and disclose.

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