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?

Bad arguments against net neutrality

Net neutrality is something where my bias is so clear (in favor) that I try to be extra careful not to stake out a position before I’ve thoroughly researched the issue.  For that reason I’m still not sure what I think about it even in principle, much less the FCC’s recently proposed rules.

So I was interested to see what points libertarian magazine Reason put forth in this anti-net neutrality video:

To start, I want to zero in on this line:

If AT&T DSL blocked your access to Google because they wanted you to use Yahoo, what would you do? Probably cancel your plan and go to a provider that gives you easy access to your favorite sites.

There are multiple things wrong with this statement.

First, this scenario completely ignores the widespread lack of competition between ISPs.  The consumer behavior the video describes only makes sense in the context of competitive internet service.  The libertarian’s response is to point out that the answer to that is reforming telecom regulation to foster competition.  But if that’s really your argument, you have to make some reference to it instead of misleading viewers into thinking that competition already exists.  In other words, the fact that the scenario Reason describes is only even possible if significant reforms pass first seems relevant.

Ok, now put that aside for a moment, and imagine enough competition existed for this kind of consumer behavior to be possible.  Is it plausible?  The video uses a nice trick to make us think it is: appealing to our universal love of Google.  So let’s flip it around and try that on for size:

If AT&T DSL blocked your access to Yahoo because they wanted you to use Google, what would you do?  Off the top of my head my answer is “Probably nothing.”

The third misleading thing about that example is the choice between incumbents.  Yahoo or Google?  If you tell me I can’t use Google I know enough about how much I love Google to seek out another provider.

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?

I don’t consider any of these to be case-closed arguments in favor of net neutrality.  But if these are the best arguments against net neutrality, they’re fairly weak.  The libertarian trump card, played at the end of the video, is unforeseen consequences, and I take that point seriously.  That’s one of the reasons I’ve not yet reached a firm position on net neutrality.

But while I may not have a stance on the issue, I do have a starting point, and it’s this: something incredibly important is at stake here.  Both at the software layer and the content layer we are seeing the rise of a fascinating model of information production.  I’ll once again defer on defining that model, except to say that is significantly non-commercial.  Non-commercial production is threatened by a non-neutral net, even more so than emergent commercial entities.  If you care about preserving that non-commercial aspect, if only to learn more about it and to see its full potential, you should care a lot about net neutrality.