Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

It sounds like a great idea, but....

By Steven Weber

...what is the problem, exactly, to which net neutrality is supposed to be a solution?

The usual answer is some very complicated version of a simple claim:  the companies who provide the ‘pipes’ through which the Internet runs, will abuse their power in the market -- unless the government forces them not to.  Maybe they will slow some packets down, or block others, or favor content and services that they own or have a financial incentive to promote.

Net Neutrality, in reality, is a very complicated proposition that involves inteconnected issues of engineering, economics, and speech.  But take a moment to look at the question of whether abuse has actually happened yet.  Yes, there have been a couple of very small incidents where internet service providers blocked VOIP applications, and censored some content.  Those ‘violations’ were quickly reversed and the providers suffered for it.  Ironically, it was their very own networks that allowed customers and competitors to quickly and visibly organize, to change the behavior of the network providers that they didn’t like.

Dare I say it?  It seems to me that market forces are working pretty well here, to regulate the behavior of the big network providers.  So why should government get involved?

Some net neutrality proponents point out that since there is significant concentration among network providers, it’s possible that at some point in the future, they could abuse their market power in ways that would compromise the things we all care about on the Internet -- in particular ‘free speech’ principles (which are just as importantly, about the right to ‘listen’ by which I mean access any legal content you want to access).

Again, my view is ‘maybe’.  But if someone asked me in a very practical not theoretical sense,  right now, today, where do I think the most troubling potential concentrations of market power are located, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t say Comcast, Verizon, ATT, and other network providers.  I think I’d worry more a different part of the broadband value chain -- in particular the search function, where one company has a lot more market power on the face of it, than any one company has in the network per se.  Why, then, aren’t we talking about the government mandating ‘search neutrality’?  Why doesn’t Google then have to treat all search results equally?

The answer is because we believe the Internet is all about innovation, and we don’t want the government telling the private sector where and how it is allowed to innovate.

But why shouldn’t that logic apply to network providers as well?  Why can’t they innovate, offer different levels of service, build new functions into the network, and compete for my business on a new basis?  Comcast might just want to build a spam-free network, with filters in the middle of the network, so I wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with spam at the ‘end’.  They might want to charge me extra for that service.  I might want to pay for it.  Shouldn’t we each have the opportunity to make that deal?

Net Neutrality is a great slogan, and it’s hard to stand up and say “I’m in favor of discriminatory treatment of information.”  In fact, I’m not.  But I’m also not in favor of governments regulating where innovation can happen and where it can’t.  At least not until someone shows me that such regulation is needed to protect innovation, the public interest, and effective speech.