A Conservative's Stance on Net Neutrality

neilschelly's picture

I’ve wanted to write a conservative’s view on Net Neutrality from the perspective of someone who is familiar with the technology involved enough to describe in layman’s terms what it will mean, and why conservatives should oppose the upcoming expected repeal of the consumer protections offered by Net Neutrality.

It’s important to understand this bit about how the internet works. Everyone connects to someone else as their lifeline to the internet. Some companies may connect to multiple someones, balancing traffic across multiple providers for performance or availability reasons, but most consumers will only have one upstream someone. Those someones connect to other someones, and eventually, those someones are the so-called Tier 1 backbone providers that make up the bulk of the largest internet bandwidth pipes crossing oceans and countries alike. The point is everyone connects to someone, including your typical home user who connects to someone like Verizon or Comcast or whoever your cable/phone provider is in your area.

Generally speaking, and historically just by the honor system, you have paid your provider to connect you to the web of connections that make up the internet. You have been assuming that that provider literally just puts you in the network, but really doesn’t manage what places in the network you can jump to from their own presence. Once I connect to Comcast, I will assume they can transmit my packets to Netflix or Amazon or whatever other online service I am using. This also works for the companies at the other side of these connections. When Twitter or Facebook or anyone else buys transit service from an internet service provider, they aren’t buying it from your cable company, but they are buying from one or more providers that can connect them to the rest of the internet. That means that you can reach them and they can respond to you. Certain providers may be more or less performant because of geographic locality, bandwidth availability, and the other networks that they are connected to themselves, but the assumption everyone is making is that the ISP is just making the connection. As an end user or a company, you are paying for the bandwidth usage or service level between you and your provider. This is what folks are used to with their cellular phone data plans too, where you are contracting for a certain number of bytes that are delivered to/from your phone.

Network Neutrality as a concept means protecting this way of functioning. Without the protections it enforces, your provider may just say, “Sure, we’ll connect you to the internet, but we don’t want you to use Netflix because it competes with our TV streaming service, so we’ll just make those connections fail or be too slow to be useful. Maybe we’ll redirect all traffic you try to send to Netflix.com to a helpful page that lets you subscribe to our service!” Suddenly, your internet provider is not just transit for your internet traffic, but it is the arbiter of where that traffic should be allowed to go and how fast. Maybe you’re going to start seeing a la carte selections where you cannot see the whole internet, but you can communicate only with the online services you’ve paid for, like buying access to Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Amazon, etc all as subscription/services from your ISP. Now, your connection to Netflix costs you whatever per-month subscription fee is for Netflix _and_ whatever your per-month subscription fee is to convince Comcast to let you reach Netflix. Bummer.

This internet future is a scary one, but it’s not an exaggeration of what will happen. The repercussions to your wallet will be swift and annoying, but the long-term implications to the greatest free speech platform in our history could be truly tragic and destructive.

Conservatives usually want to jump to the conclusion that we cannot tell companies what to do, so we must repeal Net Neutrality protections. Let the free market sort things out. Conservatives want to trust that companies won’t degrade their product to this point. Competitors will force them out of the market if their product is this bad, but there’s a problem. There is no free market here. I would be thrilled if we were in a place where we could repeal Net Neutrality (because I also don’t like consumer protections as a government intervention in general). If my ISP decided it wasn’t going to connect me to a given service anymore, I could just move to another provider. What a world that would be! I’ll bet if you’ve read this far, you probably also have a story where you’d prefer to have a better provider for your internet service, phone service, or TV service, too. But you don’t, do you? I’m sure most of you don’t anyway.

Here’s the problem with the conservative anti-regulation stance as it applies to Net Neutrality. There is no free market here. These are monopolies handed out by governments at local, state, and federal levels over the last several decades. Those monopolies can and will do whatever they want because there is no chance for competition to push back against them. The government interference has already happened, and Network Neutrality protections are now a necessary requirement for an open and free-as-in-freedom internet. The conservative stance must first work to encourage a free market. It cannot stand behind giving further handouts to the places that have acquired a monopoly by abusing government handouts.

I welcome any legislation that moves us away from a place where internet service providers have such a stranglehold on their users’ choices. Repealing Net Neutrality is not going to help with that. If we repeal Net Neutrality before we’ve ensured that the free market has healthy competition for internet access, I promise we’ll see just how terrible things can get. The various scary things that you’ve seen shared on social media so far are all pretty much a given, because they’ve all happened before, but I can also assure you that even more new and inventive ways to screw us all over are going to follow.

Helpful and/or entertaining links for more accurate information:
* https://www.facebook.com/aclu/posts/10154903898476813
* https://www.facebook.com/imgur/posts/10154823463522471
* http://theoatmeal.com/blog/net_neutrality