Net Neutrality Fight Isn’t About Saving Internet Freedom, It’s About Saving Internet Commerce

Net neutrality, as comedian John Oliver said on his HBO show, may be the worst-named cause ever. Besides being “completely boring,” it refers to “all data being treated equally no matter who creates it and why the Internet is a weirdly level playing field.”

Like many Internet activists, Oliver has been urging all conscientious citizens to tell the Federal Communications Commission to leave the net alone. Go file online comments before Friday's deadline, he urges, and don’t allow cable companies to charge content creators different prices for sending data at different speeds, which might disadvantage a NetFlix or Facebook or Google.

“What’s being proposed is so egregious that activists and corporations are being forced onto the same side,” Oliver said. “That’s basically Lex Luther knocking on Superman’s apartment door and saying, listen, I know we have our differences, but...."

This is entertaining, but very misleading. It is a myth that Internet service is now free and open and equal and somehow utopian. It’s not—just look at the varied packages sold to consumers. Look at what you have at home. If you don’t like your DSL, you can pay more for cable or a fiber optic plan. There’s nothing equalitarian or utopian there.

Let’s take another step back and ask, is net neutrality even a consumer movement? The closer you look, the more the answer is no. It’s a giant fight between giant corporations. Consumers—the public—are pawns in this fight. This is a business-to-business war, between different tech sectors, each of whom sits behind a cash register and profits mightily from all things that are delivered online.

Consider this tidbit from a press release from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which arrived on Wednesday morning via e-mail. Ask yourself who is the beneficiary here? Is it ordinary people whose service is already metered and fragmented by data speed and data volume, or is the tech community that wants to support startups and its successes?

“An open, neutral, and fast Internet has sparked an explosion of innovation in everything from shopping to the way we exchange ideas and debate potential political change,” said EFF intellectual property director Corynne McSherry. “But its founding principles are now under threat.  It’s time for users to take action to protect our Internet.”

The rhetoric here is 1984—as in George Orwell’s dystopian novel—or if you want a more modern read, Dave Eggers' The Circle. What freedom is being talked about here? Whose freedom? Freedom to do what? Here’s how EFF describes the threat:

“The FCC has long promised to take steps to protect the open Internet, but earlier this year the agency announced a net neutrality proposal that would allow for so-called ‘Internet fast lanes.’ The plan claims to promote a neutral Internet, but embraces a ‘commercially reasonable’ standard for network management, allowing ISPs to make special deals that would give some services privileged access to subscribers.”

They are not talking about consumers who are reading this column on the receiving end of a digital device. Right now, consumers, including me in my home office, don’t have a neutral Internet. Nobody is censoring political information. But when it comes to the audio, video and other high bandwidth uses, we get what we pay for. We live and work within the realities of fluctuating and overly hyped broadband speeds. Who hasn’t seen faster and slower days online?

John Oliver, in his "Jump on the net neutrality bandwagon” feature from his HBO show in June, tries to make net neutrality sound like it’s a consumer movement. But the examples he uses, warning of the terrible things that are to come if data monopolists get their way, are all about giant corporations getting hit by other giant corporations. Consumers have been living with these predatory practices for years.

Oliver points to a dandy graphic showing how Comcast slowed down the streaming speed of Netflix downloads when it was in negotiations with Netflix—and bam, after it had a deal, Netflix’s speed shot up. I don’t consider that a giant consumer victory. If anything, I’ve been on the receiving of that kind of inconsistent broadband service for a long time. And I live in high-tech San Francisco.

On its website, the FCC lists its goals for proposed net neutrality rules, saying it “proposes a requirement that all users must have access to fast and robust service: Broadband consumers must have access to the content, services and applications they desire. Innovators and edge providers must have access to end-users so they can offer new products and services.”

I am sure AT&T believes my broadband service more than satisfies that standard. But let me tell you, as a user, it’s been inconsistent. The last time I complained and AT&T sent a technician out, the service person said AT&T had put too many subscribers on the DSL circuit serving my apartment. I was switched to another DSL feed, and all of a sudden I was getting the broadband speeds I thought I had been paying for—for more than a year. 

Another AT&T technician said I could get superfast speeds from the new lime-green fiber-optic box they were installing across the street, but I have to buy their digital TV, digital phone and Internet bundle. Right now, I don’t want a new big bill. My point is where in all of this is the "utopian even playing field" for Internet service touted by net neutrality activists? I don’t see it.

What I see is business-to-business tech companies leading the chorus of complaints to the FCC that they don’t want to be treated the way ordinary individual consumers—like me—have been treated for a long time. If you want more speed, more bandwidth, more of a platform, get over yourself and pay for it.

Now, I know that people from EFF or will likely say, “He doesn’t get it.” But I do get it. The Internet is already metered. It’s not free. It’s not fully open. Different e-mail services limit the size of attachments. There’s something upside-down here when the net neutrality movement is cast as a consumer fight. It’s a fight for technology startups and giant Internet-based corporations to have unbridled access to consumers. Last time I looked, Netflix or AT&T or Comcast or YouSendIt weren’t lowering their prices. They were tracking my searches and targeting their ads.

In Wednesday’s New York Times, a report on the deluge of net neutrality comments to the FCC, characterized critics of the FCC’s proposed new rules. The Times said critics fear it “would open the door to a two-tier Internet of fast and slow lanes, with affluent companies and households enjoying premium service and everyone else fighting traffic: a death knell for the open Internet and its democratic ethos of 'net neutrality.'"

Well, if that’s a death knell for the Internet and its democratic ethos, the Internet of these activists’ dreams has been dead a very long time. And they shouldn’t be promising the public that somehow pushing back on the FCC new rules will resurrect that utopia.

In all the net neutrality messaging I’ve read, I haven’t seen a consumers’ bill of rights. But, after all, this is a business-to-business fight. That’s not the same thing.

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