Evgeny Morozov on Net Neutrality

I finally got around to reading Evgeny Morozov’s Boston Review piece reviewing The Master Switch along with another [even more] academic book on net neutrality. It’s a great review and I highly recommend the whole thing. But this part gives the basic argument for net neutrality nicely:

Van Schewick argues that the pioneers of the Internet recognized the network’s revolutionary potential, so instead of optimizing for performance or cost at such an early stage, they decided to maximize long-term evolvability. And that meant keeping the network core as simple and unspecialized as possible.

It is possible that the trade-off made by computer scientists in the 1980s may no longer reflect the needs of today. “If we believe that all important applications have been realized,” Van Schewick writes, advocating on behalf of the devil, “there is no need to incur the costs of keeping the Internet open for new applications.” But given that there was no Kindle, iPad, or Twitter just five years ago, that belief is a foolish one. As Van Schewick puts it, “Leaving the evolution of the network to network providers will significantly reduce the Internet’s value to society.” In other words, a non-discriminatory—neutral—Internet is in all our interests.

Most provocatively, Van Schewick argues that even the presence of competition may not succeed in thwarting discriminatory practices. And here is where she undermines Wu’s claims about information empires.

In most industries, discriminatory behavior by a firm in a competitive market gets penalized by rivals who offer the excluded goods to disappointed customers. Why doesn’t this happen in the market for Internet services?

First, the initial act of discrimination by one network operator may strike such a severe blow to the providers of excluded goods that they would exit the market altogether. If Comcast or Verizon blocks access to Netflix, the ban might not kill the company immediately but it could contribute to its eventual downfall, even if others don’t block it.

Second, competing network operators may choose to block the same application, leaving users nowhere to turn. It seemed like Neelie Kroes—who is in charge of telecom policy for the European Commission—was on to something when she urged Europeans to vote with their feet and leave mobile providers that restrict Skype. But this is not an option in France, where, despite strong competition among providers, all of them restrict Skype.

Third, network providers may hide their discriminatory practices, slowing down rather than blocking the applications they don’t like. Since consumers don’t know whom to blame for their slow speeds—it could be a problem with the application, not the network—they may stick with their providers anyway.

I covered some of those arguments in two posts back in December, and from those I’d add a fourth: nascent services without strong user bases will be particularly vulnerable. If your ISP blocked Netflix maybe, just maybe you’d consider switching. But if it blocked some startup’s service you’d never heard of? You wouldn’t. As I put it then:

But what about Google vs. the next great search company?  If Google can reach into its deep pockets to ensure its searches are delivered faster, that makes it a lot harder for an emerging company/technology to compete for market share.  New entrants not only lack the deep pockets to pay ISPs, they lack the name recognition required to convince consumers to seek out neutral ISPs.  Even if I would switch ISPs to make sure Google isn’t disadvantaged relative to Yahoo, would I actively switch from an ISP that equally prioritized incumbents in order to access new entrants I’d never heard of?