The Net Neutrality Debate Lacks Imagination

While I find the net neutrality debate extremely important and interesting, I can understand how other people fail to see why they should care about the issue, or how it could effect their lives. I believe that this failure is due to a lack of imagination in the network neutrality debate. The general public has a very strong understanding of what the internet is today, however net neutrality advocates offer no illustration of what the internet could look like should network neutrality principles erode over time. I’m not saying that net neutrality proponents should engage in fear mongering, but providing details on what a future ‘closed’ internet could look like, based on how past disruptive technologies have been co-opted, is entirely necessary to engage the general public and inform them as to what is at stake. (skip the history, go to the good stuff)

A History of Past Technologies

Before trying to explain how the internet might evolve, or rather devolve, into something more stagnant and controlled, it may be useful to illustrate how past technologies offered the promise of extraordinary transformation before being commercialized, controlled, and then locked down by incumbent oligopolies. This pattern is best documented in Tim Wu’s book “The Master Switch” where he delves into the history of several technologies that have gone through “the Cycle”. I’ll summarize a couple examples below.

Radio

The history of radio offers the closest analogy to the development of the internet. “Radio in the early 20th century was a scattering of amateur stations, started not for profit, but so its hobbyists would have a platform for their views and interests.“. Radio visionaries expected radio to enable communication among local communities and between people in a way telephone technology never could. Through broadcast, underrepresented voices could compete with large newspaper publishers to get their message out and engage with like minded listeners who could broadcast their responses. Schools and businesses could use radio to transmit messages across their campuses. Individuals could discover new friends and colleagues in their area by scanning their radio dial to find other interesting people who were broadcasting. Waldemar Kaempffert, the editor of Scientific American, proclaimed, “All these disconnected communities and houses will be united through radio as they were never united by the telegraph and telephone.”

However the excitement and rapid development of radio technology quickly caught the eye of the corporate world. General Electric partnered with the US government to create the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), a brand that dominated broadcasting’s early decades. AT&T used it’s radio radio station in New York City to broadcast radio’s first advertisement and then teamed up with RCA to create the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). The US commerce department had up until that point tried to regulate the “advertising chatter” on the public airwaves until NBC and others lobbied to have such regulations removed. From there, large broadcasters lobbied the US government to implement metro area wide licensing (each frequency licensed city-wide) and to heavily regulate the process for new entrants into the market, thus solidifying their monopoly. Over the years these same companies argued against anti-trust rules and successfully bought up their competitors leaving us in our current media consolidated landscape where the two largest radio companies own over 1,300 radio stations in the United States.

Radio, which was once thought to be a revolutionary democratizing technology, was shaped by commercial interests into the nationally standardized, commercial ridden, lowest common denominator, one-to-many broadcasting system that we have today.

Broadcast Television

Early Television technology was seen as novelty but again, as soon its commercial viability became clear, the incumbent broadcasters quickly pivoted from radio to TV keeping their corporate empires intact, preventing new television companies from displacing them, and ensuring that the business model surrounding television mimicked their existing radio broadcasting model.

Cable Television

Cable TV was a slightly different story. Cable companies began by capturing over the airway signals and then pumping that signal over cable to serve remote areas that over the air broadcasting didn’t reach. The broadcasters sued these disruptive cable companies but the cable companies won in court.

Without the limitations of wireless spectrum many people thought that the prospect of nearly an unlimited number of channels would revolutionize distance learning, that schools and individuals would have their own cable channels, and that this new technology would empower individuals against the large traditional over the airwaves broadcasters.

Of course none of these dreams came to pass. Like the communications technologies before it, the cable industry quickly commercialized and then consolidated with buyouts and mergers transforming the patchwork of local cable operators to a potential Comcast-Time Warner merger owning 60% of the market.

While the cable TV industry began as a disruptive startup, as soon as it was well established it worked to prevent new entrants into the market, to consolidate their power, and to maximize their profits.

the Internet TOday

Today’s internet seems to be on a similar trajectory. Gone are the early days where the internet was made up of computer hobbiests and curious academics. New internet companies have emerged and quickly become billion dollar corporate titans.

Many people argue that Facebook will soon be displaced the same way it itself displaced MySpace, or that Google will be replaced by future search engines the same way Google replaced AtlaVista. However the internet companies of today are many times larger and more powerful than even the most successful internet companies in the early days (example: Yahoo’s 1996 IPO raised $34 million, Facebook’s 2012 IPO raised $104,000 million). The landscape of internet infrastructure today is also much different and more entrenched than in the early days (who uses a local ISP anymore?).

The early culture of distributing amateur software to other computer users through the internet (and encouraging others to tinker and improve the software) has been replaced with locked-down cloud based “software as a service” platforms. Personal homepages, once public and interoperable,  have been replaced with private corporate own Facebook profiles.

THE Future of the INTERNET

What the future holds for the internet no one can be sure, but an examination of the history above does give us hints. With these histories in mind it is up to net neutrality advocates to illustrate what the future of the internet could look like should Comcast and other large internet companies get their way. Below are a few of my own examples of what a dystopian future internet could look like…

  • Comcast charges Netflix so much to connect to it’s network that Netflix becomes extremely expensive for customers. Meanwhile Comcast refuses to sign ‘fast lane’ contracts with Netflix competitors, and other startups, so there are no new alternatives. Of course Comcast’s Xfinity “TV Everywhere” package (for customers that also buy cable TV from Comcast) streams extremely fast.
  • Comcast offers a cheap $10/mo package where Facebook, Netflix, ESPN, and YouTube all run great but everything else runs very slow and also counts against a 5GB data cap. This plan becomes wildly popular because it is so cheap and “good enough” for most users. Facebook, Netflix and the others pay Comcast large amounts of money to be on this plan (basically subsiding the customer). New startups are unable to reach these consumers without 1st cutting a similar deal with Comcast (something neither Comcast nor the Facebook incumbents have an interest in).
  • This example is the reworking of the concept above but is based on two recent Comcast and AT&T actions. Hulu pays Verizon so that using the Hulu app on Verizon doesn’t count against user’s data caps. Other large companies strike similar deals. Many customers love it at first because they can now watch video without quickly reaching their data caps. With this new system low 2GB data caps are no longer seen as a problem. Meanwhile new companies, or companies Verizon doesn’t want to do business with do not catch on because customer’s are accustomed to only using their data caps for basic web browsing, not for high bandwidth apps.
  • Currently when you go to GoDaddy to setup your personal website you pay GoDaddy a set monthly hosting fee. Without net neutrality you may pay an additional amount for different tiered speeds. You want you personal website to load quickly or reliably worldwide? Well that’s gonna cost you extra.
  • When you move into you new house you start looking into whether you should get Comcast, or Verizon FiOS, or maybe your local phone company as your internet provider. Of course you consider price but instead of comparing that price to the ‘speed of your internet connection’  the internet service providers offer different packages with different websites at different speeds. You want Netflix AND YouTube? What is the best package or combination of packages with which ISP to best suit your personal internet browsing habits. Of course which package you sign up for will also shape how you end up using the internet. When you sign up for that year long contract you better hope online preferences don’t change or a cool new website comes a long that isn’t a part of what you signed up for.

These are just a couple of examples of how FCC net neutrality policy may shape the future internet.

Further Reading