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Cases for and against net neutrality

On 14th of December 2017, US Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has voted to relax some net neutrality restrictions that were introduced in 2015. Most notably, FCC changed internet classification from telecommunication to information service, which has passed regulatory responsibilities over it from FCC to Federal Trade Commission (FTC). As well as this, the rules restricting internet service providers (ISP's) from speeding up premium services or throttling non-premium content have been removed. However, ISP's are required to be transparent about prioritisation of any internet-based services over the others and the main role of FTC is to ensure that ISP's correctly disclose such information to the public.

For those who are unaware, net neutrality is a set of rules that force ISP's to treat all internet traffic in the same way, regardless of where it comes from. Therefore, where net neutrality rules are implemented, ISP's are not allowed to slow down or speed up any specific internet-based services or restrict access to them in any way. This implies that traffic associated with small websites is travelling through the network at the same speed as the traffic originating from Google or Facebook.

Net neutrality is a sensitive issue with many vocal supporters and opponents, both of whom have some valid arguments. We have decided not to take any particular side on this debate, but rather present the best arguments from both supporters and opponents of net neutrality. The conclusion will be yours to make.

Here are the main arguments in favour of net neutrality:

Without these restrictions in place, there is nothing to stop ISP's from acting as extortionists, slowing down all traffic coming from the service providers that did not opt to pay for premium service. This will make it difficult for small start-ups to compete with large players, as small businesses are less likely to have spare cash to pay for being accessible via an internet fast lanes. This will make it more difficult for small start-ups to emulate the success of Facebook and Google, both of which came out of nowhere and outcompeted Myspace and Yahoo! respectively. Another potential consequence of this is that large service providers may chose to pass increased operational costs onto consumer, so your Netflix, or any other subscription service, will become more expensive.

In totalitarian states, where net neutrality rules don't exist, ISP's routinely block content undesirable by the government. Although US is very far from being a totalitarian nation, despite many claims of the contrary, ISP's may chose to block access to certain services for purely commercial reasons. For example, instead of being able to watch videos on Youtube, users may be forced to use ISP's own sub-standard video-sharing websites instead. This, particular example is a very unlikely scenario, as any ISP that would participate in such activities would go bankrupt. However, it is still likely that ISP's would block some back-end services that end users rely on without being aware of it.

Although ISP's are now required by law to disclose any alterations to internet traffic speed and availability, which is intended to ensure that they remain competitive, some critics believe that enforcement of the law by FTC is problematic and it make take years for some violations to be investigated. Also, although making certain services slower will dis-incentivise users from using a given ISP, there aren't many ISP's available in the US; therefore abolishing net neutrality restrictions may not facilitate a good level of market competition.

On the other hand, the arguments against net neutrality rules are as follows:

The restrictions that have been repelled by the vote have only been introduced in 2015, which implies that there were no net neutrality before then. However, before the restrictions were introduced, the innovations in internet-related technologies were happening at a fast pase, many start-ups sprang up and end users were doing just fine. In fact, current major tech players, such as Facebook, Microsoft, and Google, were able to start from virtually nothing and outcompete their big multi-national rivals while the internet regulations were much looser than they are now. Surely, ISP's were caught abusing their powers, but such cases were very rare and far between. Also, in all such cases, the ISP in question abandoned the practice either immediately or after some time after being found out.

Another argument in favour of the reversal of net neutrality rules is that ISP's have promised that the quality of web access will not get worse for any of the end users compared to what it is now. This will be achieved by introducing fast internet lanes without throttling any traffic that doesn't use them. So, the end users would be able to chose between fairly good quality content that they currently have access to or highly-reliable premium quality content (e.g. 4K videos). Only those users who would chose to view such content would be charged extra for it and this is how content providers would be able to pay for using fast lanes. Being able to charge content providers extra would enable ISP's to improve internet infrastructure and subsidise better internet access in unprofitable regions, such as rural areas.Also, fast internet lanes of today are likely to become standard internet lanes of tomorrow, in the same ways as budget smartphones of today have similar specs to premium smartphones of yesterday.

Finally, over the last decade, many tech companies have adopted a successful scalable pricing model for various services, such as access to the cloud or software-as-a-service (SaaS). This model works by charging small users either nothing or very little, while major businesses who use large numbers of cluster nodes and large amounts of data, pay substantial sums. Due to proven success of such scalable pricing model, there is a possibility that similar model would be adopted to charge web business owners for the access to the fast internet lanes. As small businesses would generate only small amounts of traffic, the cost to an ISP to manage such traffic would be relatively low; therefore the businesses would be charged relatively little if they would wish to use premium infrastructure.

So, since we have listed the major arguments for and against net neutrality, we feel that it is our duty to clear some of popular misconceptions associated with the subject. Ro Khanna, a politician representing Democratic Party in the US, has posted a viral twit which states that Portugal has a packaged internet and this is what would happen in the US if the net neutrality rules are abolished. In his twit, he has shared a screenshot of various packaged, plans, such as social, movies and music, implying that users don't get to access full web, but are limited to the services dictated by the package that they chose. However, regardless or whether Ro Khanna made an honest mistake or intentionally chosen to be dishonest, this is not how internet actually works in Portugal. Portugal is part of the EU, which has very strict net neutrality rules. The screenshot in Ro Khanna's twit was actually showing add-ons for mobile data plans, where users pay an additional monthly fee in order not to incur normal data charges for certain services. So, without such add-on, a user would be charged per every megabyte of data, regardless of where it comes from, while with a social plan, for example, users are not charged for data that goes through social networks.

Another popular misconception is that many people assume that net neutrality rules will now be abolished with immediate effect. This is not the case, as it will take several months for the changes to actually take place. During this time, lawsuits most certainly will be filled to stop the changes from happening. Therefore, there is still a possibility that the result of the vote will be declared null and void and that net neutrality rules will remain what they are now in the US.

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Posted on 16 Dec 2017

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