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It sounds like a great idea, but….

Steven Weber, professor of political science | November 4, 2009

…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.

Comments to “It sounds like a great idea, but….

  1. Our country obviously needs many of its laws. But as Professor Weber points out, we do not need to invite unwarranted legislation. And the point about lobbyists is one excellent reason exactly why not. Every time we grant government power through a new law, we open the door for business to lobby for preferential treatment under that law.

    As professor Weber points out, currently ISPs are generally pressured into non-censorship and neutrality practices because acting otherwise means upsetting consumers and losing business. In other words, the ISPs currently have a vested interest in maintaining neutrality. Laws which mandate net neutrality shift business’ best interest; these companies then become interested in lobbying congress for special treatment or loopholes in these laws. In the long-view then, such laws that are meant to protect consumers will end up opening the door for exploitation of consumers.

  2. Professor Weber, I agree that no major offense has been perpetrated by the companies which provide internet service, and I am also not in favor of expanding the realm over which the government has control. What you are missing here, as is most of America, is the fact that there is a dichotomy of the service providers and the content which traverses their equipment. The restriction of content on the internet is equivalent to restricting the words which can be spoken during a telephone call, or at the very least restricting which phone numbers you are able to connect to. The internet does in fact need to be regulated for neutrality from this aspect.

    As for how searches should or could be regulated, we have a much broader concern. Search engines display results based on algorithms which are the same for every search, but which vary from one search engine to the next. This algorithms are designed to help determine what content is relevant for the words typed by the user. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of points factored into this algorithm. This approach is less of a phone book approach; It is closer to a concierge which will sift advertisements for coupons from the companies you shop with and the products you shop for. When searching mainstream concerns, such as information for a report, you will get a vast amount of results and you are responsible for choosing your own content. If you want to search on more focused topics, like local movie theaters and when a movie is starting, all of the major search engines will first return sites which specialize in providing addresses, directions, current movie listings, and start times for local theaters.

    Also, another fact to keep in mind is that, for the most part, search engines do not have a vested interest in results which they display. Obviously, there are paid advertisement sections where each search engine will display ads which will generate the most revenue for that search engine based on the terms searched by the user. Furthermore, the choice of search engine we use is not decided based on our geographical location. This is a choice we all make based on our own personal decisions. Internet access is based on who owns the infrastructure where we live, and thus beyond our control.

    I have made my living by providing goods and services on the internet for many years, and I have educated myself on the issues of net neutrality and on your newly coined term “search neutrality” (which I have closely watched for a long time but never had a term for). The bottom line, in my opinion, is that the government should set standards for content regulation, but should leave the business of providing search results to the search engines.

  3. Professor Weber, do you truly believe that service providers are going to provide internet completely fairly? Do you truly trust Silicon Valley in the hands of oligopolies such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T? Have we not already seen a tremendous amount of favoritism in the business practices of these very companies? This self-profiting favoritism is inherent; you provided examples of it yourself.

    “Why doesn’t Google then have to treat all search results equally?” This statement confused me. Google’s itemized nature makes a “equal” treatment of search results, by definition, impossible. How can you search if you remove selectivity? Given that I misunderstood your point and concepts such as “search neutrality” would also help, then should they not be enacted alongside net neutrality? Why must it be one or the other? Both concepts seem like they would be beneficial and there is no tradeoff between the two. Constantly discussing where else we should better focus our attention leads to an absence of actual action.

    I can’t understand why some people, like McCain, seem to believe that the government shouldn’t be able to regulate oligopolies but that the oligopolies should be able to regulate the entire dot-com industry.

    (Well, in McCain’s circumstance, it seems clear that he’s fulfilling his duty to the lobbyists that raised millions of dollars for him. Source: )

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