April 28, 2017
If you knew me in the 90s, remember how I said this new-fangled thing called the Internet is going to be huge and change everything? But if you pressed me for details, the techno-babble that spewed from my mouth was boring and incomprehensible. Well, it’s time once again for an extremely important, prophetic, and incomprehensible sermon, this time on the importance of net neutrality.
The Internet really isn’t a thing, it’s a protocol, an agreed upon set of rules to let a bunch of different machines talk to each other. The success of the Internet is directly proportional to not only how well we support the technical infrastructure of that protocol, but how we support the spirit of that protocol as well. And the primary premise of that protocol is that traffic (doesn’t matter what that traffic is) gets to hop freely from network to network until it reaches its destination.
There’s a subtle give and take to this strategy which makes it brilliant. The take is of course easy access to immeasurable amounts of info. The give is that all computers/hardware/etc. on the network have to aid in the technical duties of passing along data until it gets where it needs to go, even if that data is just passing through and has nothing to do with the hardware in question. By having any Internet compliant device doing free and equal work for data that’s not necessarily its concern (think of it as freeloading data), data communication barriers are negated, and data superhighways magically evolve out of nowhere.
Since the Internet, by design, can grow freeform without a centralized administration, and the traffic flow is guaranteed by the protocol, we get to reap the benefits of an unbiased global data network that can connect any corner of the world. The pros end up overwhelmingly outweighing the cons, and the Internet gets to freely evolve, connecting the world without centralized control – all because it obeys this ingenious give and take ideological protocol.
But if anyone besides the end users restrict, manipulate, eavesdrop or play favorites with that traffic, you essentially end up with a privately controlled network like AOL was in the 90s. See how well they are doing today? History has shown that it’s a bad idea which eventually fails.
If there’s a name to this give and take ideology behind this strategy, it’s called net neutrality. Without it, the Internet would have gone the way of AOL, Compuserv, Earthlink, homegrown bbs etc. Just as I predicted in the 90s, this very successful concept has created an Internet that is now too resilient to ever fail, but without the continued support of net neutrality, it will morph into something much less ideal. To ensure that end users (and not data carriers like Comcast/Verizon/etc.) control how data gets from point A to point B, users will start incorporating encryption technology to keep prying eyes (goverment/marketers/data miners) from eavesdropping and connection obfuscating technologies like VPN and the TOR browser to maintain privacy and control of their data. This needlessly complicates and bogs down Internet traffic. Not to mention it makes watching cat videos over encrypted protocols look just as dubious to the authorities as rigging a foreign country’s election. This hidden network within a network is called the dark web, and it’s where every creepy thing you’ve ever seen in a movie actually exists. Without net neutrality, regular users will be forced to adopt this behavior as the de facto standard, and the dark web simply becomes the new Internet. For example, Googling “prenatal vitamins” will require the same clandestine measures used for spy communication and black market arms and organ dealing, to ensure your boss can’t buy your browsing history and fire you before you request family leave.
When an ISP plays god and injects an ad into your web page, slows down your Netflix stream, disables your file sharing ports, and monetizes your network activity by data mining everything you do online without your consent, the users have lost control of their data and are now no longer paying for network access, but rather paying ransom surcharges to the ISP gatekeepers to keep them from mucking with the data. This value-subtracted service is nothing but a scam. The market’s success then becomes dependent on what’s most profitable for the ISP, not what the best overall product is. The Internet becomes the ISP’s product and not a free market for data exchange. Essentially the distributed network has now become centralized by an undeserving authority. An authority whose quest for an extra buck destroys the original product it’s trying to profit from in the first place. This is the exact opposite spirit of the “give” portion of the Internet protocol, which, when all the dust clears, is what made the protocol’s success possible in the first place.
This is analogous to a restaurant owner bribing a health inspector, and the public expecting those health ratings to actually be accurate and fair portrayals of the restaurant. It becomes especially unfair when compared to restaurants that didn’t bribe the inspector. It unfairly kills the whole premise. Not only will the ratings be ignored, but people will also stop eating out because who knows if they will get sick or not.
On the technical front, the open model network succeeds where the centralized/regulated/restricted one fails, because handling technical issues like outages and growth require zero centralized intervention. Since the topology and communication is unrestricted, it’s designed to evolve way past anything the original designers could have ever even conceived. By giving all the data and traffic the same priority and right, a virtual free market is created where users get to decide which web sites, streaming services, net based applications, etc. thrive or fail, solely based on the quality of content or service. When a third party steps in and tries to make a buck off a successful service (by throttling, charging a premium for access, etc.), or gives preferential treatment to a different service, the free market is killed. It is by far in our best interest to protect this free cyber market so it can continue to evolve, and provide us with information and technological services beyond what any one undeserving authority could ever conceive of, regulate or profit from.
So where should the government stand it all of this? The argument that allowing the ISPs to do whatever they want (since it’s a free market) is wrong. This is simply profiteering by changing the rules and killing the protocol in the process. While you could argue that any business should be allowed to do whatever they want, and the market will manifest approval or disapproval by how many consumers buy in or not, is completely missing the point. That might be a free market for picking your ISP, but it kills the virtual free market that exists in cyberspace. Imagine if all the streets and roads were privatized, and those private companies said that Ford drivers get preferential treatment at stop lights over Chevy drivers. That would be unfair. By forcing the stoplights to treat all traffic equally, we have an infrastructure that allows for all the free markets that rely on transportation to compete equally. As a result, we have pizza delivery vehicles, cabs, food trucks and many things the original road builders never even thought of. If the road gatekeepers picked and chose their traffic, transportation-based businesses would be immeasurably stifled, and eventually the people would decide that the whole “road experiment” was a complete waste of time and money. Luckily, anyone can drive on any public road. This give and take philosophy for roads gives us a fantastic ability to move goods and people around, as long we share the road and treat all traffic equally. The Internet requires the same level playing field for its data, and ISPs should be required to provide that freedom if they want to sell any access to the Internet at all.
Regulation is beneficial when it levels the playing field for a public infrastructure, when that infrastructure greatly benefits everyone. The pros of a free cyber-market developing and thriving on protected net neutral protocol outweigh the cons of restricting profiteering from those who control the gateway, and wish to manipulate the tenants of the protocol just to make an extra buck.
Besides, the free market has already decided which tool is better, and there’s no going back. The net neutral Internet model destroyed the AOL (and similar) closed network model decades ago. We now get to choose how we move forward—by having our government enact laws that enforce net neutrality, or by taking matters into our own hands, going encrypted and dark, and dealing with the aftermath of that debacle. Let’s continue to support the protocol that thrives on a free unrestricted network, which has had such a profound change on the world for the better, and not go back to the pre-internet dark ages of the early 90s, or worse yet, go forward into the dark web. Tell your ISP and your congressman that you demand net neutrality, and that selling your rights for a quick buck is going to cost them more than their next election or business. It will also destroy the Internet as we know it.