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Here's What 'Net Neutrality' Is… and What to Think About It

Here's What 'Net Neutrality' Is… and What to Think About It

Unless you’re a dork, you will have no idea what “net neutrality” means, although chances are you’ve seen a headline about it in the last few days. Fortunately for you, I am a dork. So let me explain as simply as I can what it’s all about—and what you should think about it. 

Simply put, net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally. So your internet service provider, under a system of net neutrality, isn’t allowed to send some kinds of data to you faster. It has to treat everything the same—even if you wouldn’t mind, for example, slower emails if it meant smooth HD video on YouTube.

It also means that no one can pay to get their services to you quicker: Amazon can’t make its on-demand video services more attractive by outbidding Netflix so it can stream to you in higher quality. Finally, all applications and websites are treated the same—so if your internet connection is choppy, your service provider can’t prioritise Spotify to ensure smooth music playback.

In other words, it’s a bit of a drag. It limits a service provider’s freedom to operate their networks as they see fit, to provide customers with the best service, and it stops those providers offering higher-priced packages to heavy data users so they can enjoy a fast lane for Netflix without slowing down their neighbours’ connections. Product differentiation is one the main ways companies compete with one another, and providers will be denied that if net neutrality becomes law.

So why do so many people treat net neutrality as an article of faith? Well, the clue’s in those last three words, because most of the arguments in favour of neutrality have a suspicious ring of dogma about them—and most factual claims offered up to support neutrality don’t entirely stand up to scrutiny.

Advocates of the so-called “open,” “free,” “neutral” internet are fanatical in their insistence that no manipulation should be done to internet traffic, because it will be bad for the consumer (if big companies start taking the mickey) and bad for innovation (if, say, YouTube has a monopoly on video so no new startups can enter the fray). 

But all sorts of manipulation is being done already. As MIT Technology Review explains, “Wireless networks… have been built for many years with features that help identify users whose weak connections are impairing the network with slow traffic and incessant requests for dropped packets to be resent. Carriers’ technology assures that such users’ access is rapidly constrained, so that one person’s bad connection doesn’t create a traffic jam for everyone… Strict adherence to net neutrality goes by the wayside.”

What’s more, the internet as it currently operates is readily acknowledged to be unfit for purpose in other areas—a bit like the Canadian and British healthcare systems. A famous bug, revealed in April, left lots of supposedly private communications vulnerable because the internet was never designed to handle the number of secure transactions it does today.

And finally, as this neat little primer explains, fear-mongering about some sort of chilling effect on innovation is mostly hogwash—there’s even reason to suppose that a tiered internet would be fairer to small businesses. 

What’s really telling in the debate is who screeches and yells about the apparently inviolable principle of net neutrality. At the risk of sounding rude, it’s Silicon Valley hipsters, head-in-the-clouds bloggers, Lefty ideologues who hate big business, radical transparency campaigners, copyright infringers and Barack Obama. (For some Breitbart readers, that will be all you need to hear to vote the other way.)

But, with the exception of Obama, who’s only in favour of neutrality (a) to suck up to the last few poor twenty-somethings still swooning over him and (b) because he’s found something else he can regulate, these are the people who stand to benefit most from holding back the development of products that will benefit the average user, such as Netflix boosters for home internet connections. 

These groups want to stick it to service providers—as hated in the US as water companies, vegetarians and Liberal Democrats are in the UK—but what they don’t realise is that by denying providers the chance to manage their networks as they see fit, and set flexible prices for the services they offer, they’re only hastening the day the provider switch to more aggressive pricing strategies. 

You see, providing broadband to residential homes is a bit of a thankless task. In most countries it’s highly competitive. By allowing providers to charge for video bolt-ons, we’re delaying the inevitable day when providers announce they’re switching to “usage-based” pricing, like a mobile phone contract, which is designed to gouge users when they go over their prepaid limits.

And, even more importantly than that, these guys need some financial incentive to upgrade all those pipes. Maintaining the physical infrastructure of the internet is immensely costly, and it’s easy for internet companies and bloggers to say service providers should get out of the way and, in their words, be “dumb pipes”, but who, then, is going to do the expensive, time-consuming work of digging up roads, replacing exchanges and upgrading routers?

When the inevitable price tsunami hits, those pirates, internet obsessives and Valley nerds may come to regret the day they insisted on this pointless utopian buzzword “net neutrality”, as their own cable and broadband bills skyrocket. After a bit more consideration, perhaps these keyboard warriors might like to consider the impact on their bills of holding out now—because they’re the ones who are clamped to their computers, and whose charges will go through the roof.

There’s no way that current home internet connections are ever going to reliably deliver enough data to power, say, a 4K TV any time of the night or day without more investment. And what consumers want is a more flexible approach to data from their providers, so they can select packages that better suit them. So I say let’s jettison this silly mantra. And if that means sticking it to the nerds, well… I guess we’ll just have to suffer that, won’t we?

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