30 October 2009

Responses to 7 Arguments Against Net Neutrality

This list contains simplified versions of the many different tactics people use in order to combat the concept of Net Neutrality. I've written previously about the topic of Net Neutrality and why it is necessary, but I was unprepared for opposition because I figured that people would understand and sympathize with me. This time I won't be so optimistic. I have been reading many discussions on the internet lately where people are debating the topic of Net Neutrality and it astounds me to see the amount of misinformation being passed around. It's lesson time:

Claim 1: Net Neutrality is a ploy by the Obama administration to control the internet.
Using this argument means you're aware of a proposal given earlier this month by the FCC to enforce Net Neutrality. There is absolutely nothing in the proposal that purports any sort of control of the internet. It was drafted with 6 tenets (listed in a previous blog entry) that were very clear about one purpose: keeping the internet free of influence from the ISPs that support it. As of now, we have not seen any legislature to determine what the "hidden agenda" of the Obama administration is. The FCC drafted the proposal and then handed it off to lawmakers to create the actual policy. Once that comes out, we will be able to make accurate judgments. Until then, this claim is blind speculation and blatant disinformation. It is an attempt to kill a motion before it can even be brought before the public.

Just so that we're clear: the only bill that has been proposed so far is John McCain's. It is a preemptive strike (a Republican specialty) against a threat that doesn't exist. It uses a straw-man argument to push the agendas of the only entities that could conceivably be opposed to the concept of Net Neutrality: corporate ISPs. The FCC proposals are guidelines and requests for legislature that has yet to be drafted. It is blatantly irresponsible to speculate on the terms of the bills that they will spawn. Jon McCain's bill, if passed before any of the resulting legislature is voted on, would prevent their necessity, which would be a shame for democratic discourse.

Claim 2: Some websites are more expensive to surf than others.
It is astounding how many people actually believe this argument and as a technology expert, I see it as my job to set the record straight. Take it from someone who has worked as a network engineer: high bandwidth sites such as Hulu and YouTube are not more expensive for you to surf. Data transfer restrictions are a function of an ISP's lack of infrastructure. In more technologically advanced countries like Finland, data transfer is not even measured for the purpose of charging or limiting. Rather, connections are charged based on their maximum throughput rates. In other words, you pay rent based on the size of your apartment, not how much crap you keep inside of it. Finland, by the way, is a socialist country and has one of the lowest cost-per-megabit rates in the world.

Claim 3: People in favor if Net Neutrality are government-loving sheep.
It is unfair to tie people who are informed about what Net Neutrality is together with people who actually believe John McCain's claims. I am willing to wager that 99% of everyone who is in favor of Net Neutrality also opposes government control of the internet. It is unfortunate that opposing John McCain's insidiously named  "Internet Freedom Act" suddenly means you're FOR what he's going against. As explained in my response to Claim #1, John McCain's argument is a straw-man. He's basically arguing against an opinion that doesn't exist. Besides, you don't want to use this argument because by inversion, it means you're an unpaid pro-corporation shill.

I also feel that the term "Net Neutrality" is being purposefully dragged through the mud by using this argument. For veterans of the internet like myself, Net Neutrality has always meant ONE THING: equal access rights for all. By using disinformative straw-men to attack the wrong argument, further meanings have gotten attached to the term: pro-government, freeloader, Obama-apologist. Net Neutrality has never meant anything more than equal access rights. Please don't hijack an established term in order to turn its long-time supporters into something they are NOT.

Claim 4: Competition will ensure better quality and more innovation.
Before anyone can claim this, they should first be able to prove that the US infrastructure can surpass the capabilities of other countries. Once again, look at countries like Finland or even Japan to see what is possible with internet connectivity. Their superior connection speeds were not achieved through competition but by public funding. The corporations in the US are fat and lazy, perhaps because they are used to responding more to competition than user demands. This does not mean that creating a competitive market is the best thing to do. Rather, splitting up the giant corporations into smaller, more agile companies seems like it would be much better for consumers.

Claim 5: The Internet runs on private lines that belong to ISPs, they should be able to manage their networks how they like.
The internet would not exist without public funding and the allowed use of public land. It is not a stretch to require companies that utilize public land to act on good faith for the people. Furthermore, ISPs are compensated for the use of their networks by subscribers, governments and competitors already. Net Neutrality would not dictate how to manage a network beyond very simple guidelines to protect YOU (the consumer) from being screwed over. Why would you oppose this?

My friend Dan put it much more eloquently than I can: If you're against Net Neutrality then you must really like getting (bleep) raped. The government is trying to protect your virgin (bleep) on this one, and because it's the government doing it, you're saying, "How dare you intrude in the right of that company to bend me over and shove its massive throbbing corporate (bleep) into my unlubricated (bleep)!"

Claim 6: Users can "vote with their wallet" if an ISP steps out of line.
There are many things wrong with this statement. First, as anyone who has lived in multiple cities can tell you that there are areas where there is only one choice of ISP. Second, an ISP's power over traffic is not limited to its subscribers; any traffic traveling through its network is subject to its rules. So, you can be subscribed through one of the good guys, but your data packets still need to make their journey through the interconnected networks, dodging around obstacles and barriers put up by the bad ISPs. This results in a slower internet experience no matter how fast you can download. The only way to ensure low latency and high speeds is to enforce cooperation between all ISP entities.

Claim 7: Internet access is a luxury, not a necessity.
This is capitalism at its worst. Countries in Europe have already declared that broadband Internet access is a basic human right. This is the direction where we should be headed. If you don't believe as much, I can't change your mind.

(Addendum: Added Nov 03)

Claim 8: Given a free market, new technologies will arise that make Net Neutrality concerns obsolete.
It is certainly true that necessity is the mother of invention, but that doesn't mean that inventions arrive in a timely fashion. Is it really necessary to destroy what we have if only to eventually come up with something better? To compound this, the concept of circumventing the current network structure is a tall order. Free markets only work if there is a realistic point of entry for all parties. In this case, you can forget the possibility of a dark horse coming out of nowhere to revolutionize the Internet. If we do get a challenger, it will come in the form of a heavy player from the software industry: possibly Google or Microsoft. Either way, it is more corporatism.