Better Health

Better Health

Article from Issue 207/2018


Dear Reader,

It is hard to think of writing about anything this month but net neutrality. On November 21, the US Federal Communication Commission (FCC) decided on a 3-2 party-line vote to end the requirement that service providers treat all traffic equally, opening the door to "pay to play" scenarios, where ISPs can shake down Internet companies for access to users.

Much has been said about the end of net neutrality, and it is hard to know how to contribute something that other commentators are not already talking about. I am one who has often expressed dismay at the current state of the Internet, where huge amounts of venture capital flows in with the goal of "doing business" and the primary form of business is spying on people. What is perhaps most striking about the FCC's decision is that it doesn't fix any of these real problems with the Internet and, instead, appears to manufacture a whole set of new problems.

But what is the Internet? What we call "the Internet" is generally thought to have grown from a network connecting a number of universities and research facilities in the 1970s and 1980s, which is correct. But somewhere in the 1990s, there was a concerted effort (at least in the US) to commercialize the Internet, with big companies investing in building cables to carry Internet traffic. The original backbone network no longer exists – today's Internet is a decentralized network of wires owned by different giant companies. Wires, routers, computers, protocols, name servers, secret contracts, switching facilities – the whole hangs together as a unified thing simply because we choose to think about it as a single logical entity, and the definition of that entity is very much subject to debate and manipulation.

The reason why a single regulatory body like the FCC can wield so much influence over our culture is that we have never ever really bothered to define what the Internet is, so people with money and power can race in to define it in a way that increases their money and power.

When the FCC passed the rules protecting net neutrality in 2015, I was surprised by the number of emails our office received – form letters sent as press releases from advocacy organizations – proclaiming the action was socialism or communism, or a government takeover of private enterprise. You can attract a ready-made horde of angry citizens by invoking such themes, which are deeply embedded in our politics and culture. Less acknowledged is that the other side basically does the same thing with their rhetoric about "freedom" and "the right to innovate." (Internet giants like Google and Facebook are also big businesses, with their own shareholders, and if you did something to threaten their livelihood, like, say, suggesting that users should be compensated for surrendering their privacy, they would not hesitate to call you a communist.)

I agree with nearly everyone in the IT industry that forcing Internet companies to pay tribute money to Internet service providers will definitely raise prices, and it will certainly result in less innovation. Where I disagree is with the presumption that, by stopping the end of neutrality, you have "saved the Internet." Preserving net neutrality is just one of many things that would need to happen before you could safely pronounce the Internet "saved."

In addition to the spying, the bullying, the ransomware, and the election tampering, several business questions loom over the Internet that we haven't even begun to address. If the Internet will not be regulated by "market forces," how exactly will we regulate it? Is it fair for one company to suck up as much bandwidth as it can sell and expect everyone else to just move over and slow down? On today's Internet, for instance, in North America, 36% of all traffic goes to one vendor: Netflix. What if that were 50% or 70%? Sooner or later, you would be paying more for Internet service so the network can make room for this additional Netflix traffic – even if you don't subscribe to Netflix [1]. Is Internet Freedom really about the freedom to watch TV shows? If you're going to call the Internet a utility, you need to regulate it as a utility, or we'll end up with the worst of both worlds.

Net neutrality? Yes, of course! But don't kid yourself. That's just the beginning of what we need to do to fix the Internet.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief


  1. Top Sites by Percentage of Downstream Internet Traffic in North America:

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