Net Neutrality: Just A Little More Government Regulation Won’t Hurt
Net neutrality is where technology meets politics. In both the technical and the political worlds, misunderstandings of the internet or regulations seem to abound, resulting in mass confusion and disagreement. The media says one thing, politicians say another, and techies seem to find error in it all. The fact is that the main issue of net neutrality is the same controversy we’ve been discussing for centuries; is the free market good or bad? In the case of the internet, we’ve again put another face to the conflict and said it is different when the subject doesn’t actually change the facts.
To describe the issues behind net neutrality, one must understand the Internet from a technical aspect. Imagine that the Internet is a large railroad map. In this map, there are railroad tracks, sometimes with multiple lanes, that connect cities to each other. The tracks form a method for you to send gifts to people in other cities by putting your gift on a train to another city. You can only send gifts to people connected to you through your train network, i.e. if someone does not have train tracks to their city, you can’t send them a Christmas present. In that case, you might have to utilize another company’s train, or not send your gift at all. In the technical world, the gifts are information, and your friends are other people, companies, or websites on the Internet. Your gifts can be anything from streaming cooking shows, to online gaming, to sending emails to family members. The owners of the trains and tracks, the internet service providers (ISPs), can distinguish different gift types based on their size. They can also help their fellow ISPs by transporting gifts for each other, or they can pay ISPs to transport their gifts outside of their network. In summary, your “gifts” or data may pass through several ISPs before arriving at its destination, all of whom know the type of data based on the volume of the package.
The time it takes to transmit this package is limited by three factors. Factor one is the width of the loading door. If you must fit the gift through a standard door, then your data’s limiting factor is the size of the loading door, or in the technical world, the quality of your computer. The second factor is the speed of the train or trains, and how many gifts may be transported per train. Fiber optic cable is the new standard of making data transmit faster, similar to a bullet train in our analogy, but just like all trains are not bullet trains, not all transmission cables have been changed to fiber optic. An ISP can also lay multiple cables, adding to the number of tracks and increasing volume of packages allowed. The third factor is the width of the receiving door, where again the door size regulates at what speed packages can leave. Every time Internet data travels, the maximum volume is dependent on these three factors.
In general, this sets up a common economics problem. We have a resource, volume of data, that is “scarce” or limited. Not everyone wants or needs Internet, and beyond that, we simply don’t have enough volume of data to provide every single person with the same quality service, due to the three transmission factors listed above. We also have supply and demand issue for this resource. Consumers and companies want to transmit data, and ISPs are willing to provide that service for a price. Finally, we have different qualities of said product. Your data can travel fast or slow. Thus, in the free market, ISPs can create personalized plans for consumers, manipulating speed and volume in order to find an equally beneficial plan for both parties.
The idea of net neutrality is that it limits the speed at which a company can treat a small package versus a large package. Under net neutrality, gaming data must be treated the same as sending an email or streaming the latest episode of Stranger Things. Since emails use less volume in the trains, this limits the ability of ISPs to provide even more personal plans for their clients. Some individuals want different things for different prices, and that’s fine. My grandmother only uses Internet to check her email. Yet my husband and I are part of the gaming community, social media, email, and Amazon Prime. There’s no reason why my grandmother should pay for access to these data types when she does not utilize them, nor does she need them transmitted quickly. Fiscal conservatism says that we should let companies decide what they can and cannot offer clients, and leave clients to make their own decisions.
Thus, the term “net neutrality” is actually a bit of a misnomer. The media says net neutrality is a “free and safe” internet, where the government regulates internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all information equally. However, the word “neutrality” means quite the opposite. Net neutrality should mean that the government doesn’t take sides in or regulate the Internet in any aspect. The current law, which the FCC is attempting to revoke, further defines the Internet as a common carrier, or Title II utility, meaning that they have the power to directly regulate rates. Republican Senator Ted Cruz recently called net neutrality “Obamacare for the Internet.” Net neutrality forces ISPs to make legal decisions, rather than logical, market-driven ones. The argument that this system creates neutrality for the consumer is simply not true, just as we’ve seen in Obamacare.
Will the absence of net neutrality laws be utilized by companies? Absolutely! Companies will also face the consequences if they choose to unfairly treat clients, just like StraightTalk and Comcast did in the past. The presence of net neutrality doesn’t prevent all forms of abuse. Instead, it directly prevents the free market from solving their own problems. Let’s consider the scenario in which Comcast decides to “throttle” or reduce the speeds of Netflix. A smart investor may very well see that establishing another ISP to bypass Comcast would make him profitable. Netflix users would transfer to the other ISP in mass, punishing Comcast for poor decisions in the company. If an ISP throttled a smaller company with less traffic, then other large ISPs would advertise their superiority. Competition is essential to the free market, and allowing companies and users the freedom to make their own decisions will benefit each side.
In the end, net neutrality boils down to the same disagreements we’ve been having for decades. Should the government be able to regulate what agreements are made between a company and a consumer? Can the government make better decisions than you, the individual, can? Ted Cruz was right when he said Obamacare is similar, with every plan containing essential health benefits for the same price, even if they are not useful or desired by the consumer. Net neutrality reduces competitive and personalized pricing, forcing ISPs to provide individuals with aspects of the Internet they may never use. That is both inefficient and illogical to the user and the company. Net neutrality prevents both the user and the ISP from utilizing competition and people’s desires to their benefit.