The moniker “net neutrality” is perhaps one of the most masterful strokes of political propaganda, right up there with “ethnic cleansing” and “quantitative easing” when measured for overall obfuscation. When asked their opinion, many are hesitant to take a stand, as they retreat behind a wall of an honest lack of knowledge on the subject. For the most part this is due to a perceived requirement that one must possess a deep technical understanding of how the internet works in order to have an informed opinion. Unfortunately this plays right into the hands of its proponents; “it’s complicated, trust us, we know what is best”. In fact this complexity tactic comes directly from the pundit’s playbook; witness the recent condescending Jonathan Gruber revelations (“Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage.”) In fact, the essence of net neutrality is not at all complicated; it is just good ol’ fashioned crony capitalism in 21st century garb.
Putatively complicated subjects are often best understood through metaphor. In this case we cast the large content carriers (Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Google) as manufacturers. The manufacturers need to ship their product to distributors. The ISP’s (Comcast, AT&T, Verizon) are the shipping carriers. Currently it is entirely uncontroversial that shipping carriers charge more to ship large things quickly than they do to ship small things slowly. So if we rename “net neutrality” as “shipping neutrality” things come into focus. Under “shipping neutrality” the large manufacturers want the government to force the shipping carriers to charge everyone the exact same amount regardless of size, weight, or speed. In fact, they want the shippers to ship everything at “next day air” speeds but charge first class letter rates. Net neutrality is nothing more than two parties disagreeing over pricing for a service. The cronyism comes in to play when one side demands the government take their side and implement a price ceiling. Of course such naked rent seeking would never fly politically, so it is camouflaged under the guise of protecting freedom, equality and baby kittens. Who could be against baby kittens?
But, as with all types of economic protectionism (tariffs, subsidies and other price controls) it is the consumer that is ultimately harmed. To discern this harm we must extend the metaphor a bit further. If the shipping carriers could not recoup their costs from the shipper then they would have no choice but to collect it from the recipient (postage due surcharge). Nothing is free and someone must pay.
We should be striving to make the internet more, not less, like a package shipping network. For example, if our neighbor receives a large delivery and we receive a small one, we do not subsidize his shipment through a “monthly shipment access fee”. If we receive no shipments in a particular month, we pay nothing. With free competition we would likely see a similar situation with internet access develop: no monthly charges, pay for only the amount and speed you demand as you actually consume it.
Today with internet access we pay the same amount month after month regardless of the extent to which we utilize that service. Although some may pay a bit more for faster service, the fact remains that light users subsidize heavy users. Under net neutrality this subsidization ‘inequality’ would only become more extreme. Heavy Netflix users will cause ISP’s to increase access rates for all consumers because they are legally prohibited from collecting anything extra from Netflix or basing consumer’s charges on their usage patterns; all in the name of ‘fairness’ of course. Would it not be a better outcome if through competition ISP’s charged Netflix more to ensure priority for their content and Netflix in turned passed that cost onto their customers alone? Internet access for everyone else would get cheaper and faster as ISP’s plow that ‘Netflix’ profit into bigger and faster pipes.
An even worse outcome of net neutrality would be if ISP’s were prohibited from raising anyone’s rates. This would result in a fixed price but ever slowing speeds as the network became more congested. At which point the voters would cry out “to do something” and we would then see a new “internet delivery tax” collected by the government and doled out to ISP’s that promised to wag their tails and do their master’s bidding (such as identifying all users on their network, tracking “suspicious” behavior and shutting down websites deemed by the government to be “politically incorrect”.)
So net neutrality supporters, be careful what you wish for, you just might get the world Edward Snowden feared.