Here is my latest in the Drawn to Knowledge series. I have also created a YouTube channel, just for this show.
Share and enjoy. Next time I’ll cover something a little less divisive.
Going into more detail…
I really did try to represent the views of the two sides evenly. (There is a third side – that of the Tier 1 providers – but I made no effort to articulate their point of view. They can make their own dang video if they like. (Actually, I guess you could argue that the US government is a fourth side, but their position is basically, “What? An internet? Is that the thing that pays taxes? No? Why not?”)) This strays into politics, which I normally avoid here, but I’ll allow a bit of it if we can keep it on topic, and civil.
Having said that, I really hate this debate. Both sides are fighting for a free internet, they just disagree on whether corporations or governments are a bigger danger. They’re allies who disagree on methodology, not enemies with opposing goals. This is an important discussion about how the network should work in the future, but that’s pretty hard to tell from the rhetoric.
The pro-neutrality camp is a mess of lazy sloganeering and irrelevant class-warfare stuff. Oh no! The industry fat-cats are getting rich and locking the poor out of the internet! This is a horrible way of framing the argument, because it implies that tampering with traffic flow would be okay if it didn’t lead to rich people making money. It’s an emotional stand, not a principled one. It drags the debate away from the core concepts, which has a needless polarizing effect. They might see some converts from the other side if they framed this in terms of technology instead of rich vs. poor.
The anti-net neutrality camp has two major points:
1) Personal Liberty: The government is more dangerous to freedom than corporations.
2) Private Property: The government shouldn’t force these carriers to use their hardware in unprofitable ways or forbid them from selling their services as they see fit.
Point #1 is where this debate should be taking place. Governments would love to be able to monitor and control the flow of information. I’m on record with the position that neither companies or governments should be fiddling with looking at packets and sorting them according to anything beyond the TCP/IP protocol. However, if denied that ideal I don’t blame people for leaning one way or another with regard to companies vs. governments. Both offer some ugly scenarios.
But point #2 is a response to the rhetoric of the pro-neutrality camp. It’s basically a misunderstanding of the problem. They argue (and I agree) that a government shouldn’t just point guns at a company and say “offer your services at price X”. And it often sounds like this is what the pro side is advocating. But that’s not what we’re facing. What the Tier 1 providers are talking about doing is messing with the established routing logic of the internet to make packets go fast or slow based on something besides the size of your connection. If I was making my case to the anti-neutrality folks who were using point #2, I’d point out that the carriers own the hardware, not the data. A mail carrier isn’t allowed to hold a sack of letters at ransom, threatening to deliver them a week late unless someone gives him money. He’s also not allowed to throw away all the birthday cards, or love letters. He just takes the mail from A to B, and any further messing with his payload – for ideology or profit – is an attack on the system.
The carriers argue that with the rise of people mailing lots of phone books (net video) they have to charge more. Fine, but they already do that because they already charge by the pound. (Or are free to do so, and can charge what they like for a load of mail.) They are saying they want to root around in the mail, looking for stuff they don’t like so they can put it on the slow truck, or throw it out. Again, that’s an attack in my book.
The anti-neutrality folks might also make the point that by passing a preemptive law we could end up with the worst of both worlds: The Tier 1 providers sorting traffic for fun and profit, with a bunch of regulations that would hinder anyone else from entering the business and competing with them. Ted “the internet is a series of tubes” Stevens isn’t some mutant among lawmakers. I’m betting he’s fairly representative. (I didn’t even notice that pun until I typed it. I am sorry.) When you have that much ignorance going into making a law, the number of ways things can go wrong goes up dramatically. We could end up with some sort of “Internet Reform Act” that only addresses half the problem, plus regulates a bunch of tangential stuff, plus introduces a smattering of new net taxes, plus delivers a bunch of completely unrelated stuff crammed in there (like school funding or somesuch) that will make it difficult to oppose or debate without sounding like you’re “against education”.
Sigh. What a mess. No matter how this plays out, I don’t see any positive outcome for net users in general. The best-case scenario is that things will stay as they are now, and even that is a long shot.
Now before we have our big throwdown in the comments, I’d like to remind everyone to keep cool and keep it civil. Very, very few people outside of the industry are actually supporting the regulation of traffic. We’re mostly on the same team, but differ on which scenario is the worst-case one. I also feel sorry for people outside of the USA. In my video I made the “which country” idea sound like an open question, but in truth most of the users of the internet – basically everyone who isn’t a US citizen – will see this battle play out one way or the other, beyond the reach of their votes and voices.
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