Why I can’t be a NetNeut’er.

I tweeted yesterday that I can’t see how net neutrality supporters can support anything that alters the end user experience on the web, including apps and competing browsers (and their attendant extensions) that perform at different speeds.

I see the practical difference: supplying the bandwidth has temporal precedence, because the bandwidth supply determines the performance of said apps and browsers. However, in principle, are bandwidth, apps, and browsers not all inputs along the path to the end user? If we believe in an Internet in which EVERYONE has equal access, does the fragmentation of the Internet created by competing web products, especially mobile and web apps, not disrupt that vision on some level? An even better question: would apps and browsers be at some point open to regulation in a netneut world? The tweet was supposed to get us thinking about these things.

The netneut’ers selective support seems to me to stem from an assumption that— unlike the decision to use apps — any kind of differentiation in bandwidth would be a) out of consumer’s hands and b) in control of greedy monied interests and categorically adverse to consumer’s interests. There’s incredible (and unjustified) certitude here. Why else say with any confidence that a regulatory preemptive strike is warranted? That’s a big premise to swallow — and I don’t know how people who generally have ANY faith in the marketplace can take that pill.

Consumers choose web products that yield the best performance to them. In essence, they do their own selective rationing of the bandwidth they purchase. That bandwidth is delivered with no discrimination, and they are then free to do what they want with it. If I want to download an app that dedicated 50% of my connection to monitoring Twitter (because I love it that much) I can do that. I can essentially throttle my own connection.

Right now, it makes no sense for IPs to step in and throttle bandwidth delivery because there’s generally enough to go around. But it’s hubristic to assume that we know where the Internet is headed. It’s not inconceivable, given the growth of video streaming, that bandwidth is going to become an increasingly scarce resource in the coming years. Regardless, consumption patterns will change even if relative scarcity does not. IPs will need to be able to respond. When I see graphs like the one below, it’s not hard to imagine a not-too-distant day when video streaming services, like Netflix, won’t be able to make it in the marketplace if they can’t reserve bandwidth in bulk. And if they can’t — it’s end users who suffer.

It’s a false dichotomy to say that net neutrality is “free” in any meaningful way, and that it’s absence opens bandwidth up to corporate rationing. Effectively, netneut IS rationing. The government is effectively saying that the best allocation of this market’s resource — bandwidth — is an equal allocation among all agents, regardless of their individual resource demands. Who could this possibly make sense to, and what is “free” about it? In the current world, this arrangement is ok because equal rations leaves enough for all. But again, it’s not hard to imagine a coming world where this poses a huge problem. If I am interpreting this incorrectly, I would love clarification.

The big concern is that we end up in a world where throttling is actually needed and there won’t be enough competition among IPs to ensure that consumers are getting a fair deal. Profit motive isn’t enough to reach an equilibrium if there’s no real competition to drive IPs toward the bandwidth allocation that consumers are happiest with. Maybe there will be some kind of market failure there — but we aren’t at that point yet and it is hardly a foregone conclusion. Even then, we have to ask if the cost of government intervention — some suboptimal, technocratically imposed allocation — is worthwhile.

I have to hand it to netneut’ers. As a former one myself, I can say they have done an excellent job selling this effective distribution scheme as protecting innovating forces in the marketplace. But I have come around to seeing net neutrality as a potential death sentence for any service that requires above-average bandwidth. I would love to see any market’s resources the government has deemed should be rationed equally based on values, divorced from economic reality, that has led to market conditions that could even remotely be considered free, or conducive to innovation.

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