It’s no secret that yesterday, February 26th, the FCC voted to reclassify Internet service under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934–and on dozens of new regulations that will affect ISPs and content providers. We’re not yet sure how many such regulations exist, or of their composition, but we expect to see them posted to the federal archives within 30 days provided no further amendments are added or petitions made against the FCC. Since I doubt the reconsideration period will be met with silence, I’m not especially hopeful that I’ll find a copy of these rules in my hands before April.
Taking a step back to observe the aftermath of the debate on net neutrality has been educational. One of the most curious (and unusual) things to me has been the raw emotion that has overtaken the pro-regulation crowd. Anger, resentment, and suspicion reign above all else in their minds, casting doubt as to the intentions of those who are opposed to such regulation. Thusfar, I’ve seen accusations of astroturfing (comments made en masse by paid shills) levied against the opposition, insults, and broad statements suggesting that any opponent of such regulation simply wants the Internet to die. Certainly there’s plenty of irrationality to go around, but the pro-regulation camp is so vehement about their beliefs that I’m not sure there’s much of debate left. It’s been supplanted instead by argument and dissent. I don’t think this is a good thing.
I am mostly opposed to regulation in general and net neutrality in particular because government intervention is often unpredictable and unnecessary. That does not mean, however, that I’m on the payroll of a cable provider (or any telecommunications company for that matter) simply by the merit of my disagreement (I’m not). Unfortunately, my opinion and that of many others who have urged everyone to approach this matter with cautious discretion have been demonized, threatened, and bullied. Oddly enough, the tide of comments made by pro-regulation forces are so similar, it’s almost as if they are the ones astroturfing, electing to disguise their motives and benefactors by accusing their opponents of the inflicting the same ills. When presented with reasonable inquiries and concerns, they immediately shut down the debate in a spat of disgust, claiming that the opposition isn’t interested in intellectually honest discourse. If there’s any irony, it’s not hard to miss.
I should clarify that I don’t necessarily doubt the sincerity of net neutrality’s proponents. However, it is important that we maintain context in this debate by pointing out that that opponents of net neutrality aren’t the only ones who’ve been receiving outside funding. George Soros’ Open Society Foundation and the Ford Foundation have both contributed $196 million to pro-net neutrality groups. Therefore, while I may not be inclined to suggest that the pro-regulation camps are insincere, I certainly do doubt claims that they are entirely without bias and untainted by outside money. It seems disingenuous that Reddit’s management has declared on their blog “Today, we defeated opponents of net neutrality who have spent tens of millions of dollars every year lobbying government. […] We defeated them by spending our time.”
Opponents of net neutrality weren’t defeated solely by an army of mouse-wielding twenty-somethings; nay, an order of magnitude more money–nearly $200 million, in fact–certainly helped. I charge then that if anyone in this debate is intellectually dishonest, it is surely those who claim themselves to have been underdogs, under-funded in a fight against corporations with deep pockets. They’re ignoring the deep pockets of left-leaning philanthropists and are simultaneously unaware that they have been bought out. It’s just that it’s different (and acceptable) when the hand that feeds you agrees with your cause, regardless of whether not they are also your masters. Such is human nature.
Now, that’s not to say I’m completely against the concept of net neutrality. So, before you take to the streets with your torches and pitchforks in the hopes of beating down my door, I should point out that I’ve generally been supportive of the principle underlying net neutrality in the sense that I don’t believe origin traffic should be throttled simply on the merit of where it came from or how much traffic it comprises. Consumers pay for their bandwidth, and it’s up to them how they ought to use it; it shouldn’t be decided by intermediaries whether or not to serve or throttle that traffic. That said, we must exercise caution with our choice of language: Quality of Service (QoS) and TCP congestion control protocols are inherently discriminatory by virtue of their design. Overly broad language that precludes any discrimination against packets is dangerous. In words not all that dissimilar to those uttered in George Orwell’s Animal Farm: all packets are equal, and some are more equal than others. This is what we need to be cautious about.
It’s like the adage “Be careful what you ask for, because you might just get it.”
Aside: I actually saw someone on Reddit a couple of days ago arguing that we need to do away with QoS, precisely because it is discriminatory. Granted, that individual was swiftly and sternly corrected, schooled in the nature of TCP/IP congestion control, but I’m afraid his (or her) belief, incorrect as it was, isn’t uncommon among certain proponents of Internet regulation. I wonder if this reaction is the result of our Pavlovian-like conditioning against specific words: Whenever the “discrimination bell” rings, students of left-leaning thought become excitable and froth at the mouth. It doesn’t matter that the things discriminated against (packets) aren’t tangible or self-aware. It’s discrimination itself that is inherently evil.
To continue: If the FCC’s language is overly broad and skirts the design behavior of routing hardware, it could impact the availability of real time services. Many consumer-grade routers include QoS packet handling algorithms for VoIP and streaming video services to improve their throughput and reduce stuttering during traffic spikes, but overly broad regulations may make it illegal to enable these protocols or ship devices that include them. I’m fairly optimistic the FCC wouldn’t be quite so stupid as to enact such rules, but my pessimism creeps back when I’m reminded that this is a government agency and government regulations are subject to extensive feature creep. If you think I’m paranoid, there are some sources that have accused the Whitehouse of operating what essentially amounts to a parallel FCC (WSJ), drafting their own regulations in secret, and strong-arming the commission into passing them. Whether or not this is true (and I suspect it is), the very notion that the Whitehouse could be manipulating an independent government agency is worrisome. Had this occurred under any other administration, I suspect things would have happened differently.
The powerful, emotional involvement of the pro-regulation crowd is troubling to me. Unexpected groups, like Code Pink, have orchestrated numerous marches in favor of an “Open, Free Internet,” pushing further regulation as a means to that end. (Ignoring for a moment the ironic belief that strict regulations equal greater freedom.) I’ll even bet you don’t remember that incident in December when protesters were able to unfurl a “Reclassify Now!” banner behind the FCC’s dias. How’s that for brazen? (I wonder who paid for the banner?)
Yet in spite of the insistence from net neutrality proponents, I can’t bring myself to agree that the Internet was so horribly broken that it desperately needed such far-reaching regulations. Certainly providers like Comcast have been poorly behaved, but the FCC has managed to reign them in using existing policy frameworks thanks in part to consumer complaints. If the problem has simply been a matter of wishing for unfettered access to Internet services, did we really need hundreds of pages of new regulations?
The answer, of course, remains to be seen. As it stands, we have no idea what any of these rules are outside of a few hints dropped by FCC commissioner Ajit Pai and his speculation that the new regulations will lead to potentially half-a-dozen new taxes on ISPs–costs, of course, which will be passed on to the consumer. We’ve been promised by the pro-regulation crowd that net neutrality would lead to cheaper, faster Internet access, yet broadly reclassifying all broadband services could potentially pave the way for new taxes at the local, state, and federal level. If it seems like a stretch, remember that just after the announcement was made yesterday, protesters interviewed following the vote were adamant that this was a win for “Internet security” and access for the “disadvantaged.” How will the rest of us maintain cheaper, faster Internet if these rules require further help for Internet access to the disadvantaged? The money comes from somewhere. (Hint: The consumer–that’s you.)
I’m also somewhat terrified if these rules include some vague notion of “Internet security,” and if you’ve been troubled by the NSA’s so-called metadata-collection-scheme, you should be, too. Security isn’t something that can be willed into existence through regulation alone. For proof of such a claim, I need only point to the banking and healthcare sectors where there’s no dearth of examples. Just last year, health insurance provider Anthem was breached, possibly as early as April, only to discover the compromise nearly nine months later. Healthcare providers are heavily regulated through various compliance and privacy requirements, yet breaches still occur and it took nine months for one of the largest providers in the United States to discover customer data had been compromised. Believe me, if you’re convinced that a couple hundred regulations passed by the FCC will make the Internet more secure, it might be helpful to move to Colorado (even Alaska or DC as of this week) to partake in a hefty dose of altered reality. The surprise will be rather unpleasant otherwise.
I’ve also seen (and heard) comments from supporters of net neutrality who believe they’ll be receiving free Internet by year’s end. Could someone tell these people that “freedom” (as in speech) is different from “free” (as in beer)? I hope they never discover the GPL versus BSD debate!
Of course, all of this is just my opinion. I’d be happy if I were wrong, but I’m not convinced government intervention is always the correct (or best) answer. And in this case, I’m not convinced either that the Internet was so badly broken it demanded such broad regulation. When the rules are released in the next month or two, we’ll see who was right.