The Net Neutrality Wake-up Call

Sometime in the summer of 2002, having just graduated from university and determined to change the world, I was driving home from Albert Lea, Minnesota formulating my resignation letter.

After graduating I had, rather naively I suppose, assumed that politics was the best means to effect the change I desired, and so had taken a job on a significant political campaign. The work was hardly glamorous – lots of parades and handing out stickers – but that meeting in Albert Lea, where I had to listen to a local bemoan how immigrants were ruining the country, force a smile and say “The [candidate] hears your concerns” or some other sort of drivel, was simply too much. Real politics, I had come to learn, was a whole lot different than the ideal I imagined as an editor of the university paper. Real politics was about looking naked bigotry in the face, and somehow controlling my gag reflex.

So I quit.

Last week the FCC held a hearing about Net Neutrality, complete with protesters and stern editorials from tech sites everywhere. The message was uniform: net neutrality must be preserved, no ifs ands or buts. It was all deeply unserious.

I’ve written and spoken about net neutrality a fair bit at this point – see Netflix and Net Neutrality, or listen to this podcast – so I won’t dwell on this specific point for too long, but the basic issue is that broadband capacity needs continue to increase, which requires ongoing investment. It ought to go without saying, but said investment is not free; I understand and in principle agree with the argument that internet access should be regulated as a common carrier under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, but that does not address the need for ongoing broadband investment, and calls for reclassification, to be taken seriously, must include proposals for ensuring the US doesn’t fall even further behind the rest of the world in broadband penetration, speed, and capacity.


  • Government control of the “last mile” would guarantee net neutrality, but then taxes must cover the investment necessary for upgrading our infrastructure. If this is the best plan, then calls for net neutrality ought to be combined with local activism pressing city and state governments to prioritize funding accordingly

  • Open loop unbundling, which means separating ownership of the last mile infrastructure from the provision of Internet services, requires compelling Comcast et al to open their infrastructure to anyone who wants to be an ISP (this is how it works in many countries in the world, including almost all of those with vastly superior broadband speeds and capacity). However, the P/E ratio of your typical utility is far lower than that of a monopolistic ISP; enforcing open loop unbundling would truly be a battle, threatening billions in shareholder value (this is the best outcome in my opinion)

  • Usage-based pricing, where you pay for the capacity that you use, would properly incentivize ISPs to support net neutrality, but would be strongly opposed by many in the tech industry who do not want customers keeping track of what services are bandwidth hogs (Hi Netflix!), or choosing slower speeds to save money

Or, we could have the situation we have now: emotional appeals for net neutrality on one side, with ISPs arguing they have the right to maximize the economic utility of their networks by means that most consumers will never see (i.e. making content providers pay for fast lanes) on the other, and only the latter includes a solution for incentivizing ongoing investment.

I presume many of my readers work in technology; if you were deciding between two potential alternatives, one backed with an emotional appeal about one priority, and the other by data and a clear articulation of how a different priority would be addressed, which would you choose? I suspect most would choose the one supported by data. In other words, it’s not enough to insist that a position is morally right; it behooves us who believe in net neutrality to work through how the US can balance net neutrality with the need for ongoing broadband investment, fashion a case for our position, and then build a political movement that makes our plan a reality. That is being serious.

I sometimes fear that the tech industry as a whole learned the wrong lesson from the SOPA debate a few years ago. In that case much of the tech world came together at the last minute to defeat a terrible piece of legislation. It was certainly a great outcome, but I very much wonder how often the last-minute protest card can be played. Wouldn’t it be better if we never got to the moment of crisis at all?

The Daily Dot posted a list of companies that have spent money lobbying for and against net neutrality. It’s their introductory paragraph, though, that gets at the real problem:

With the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decision to move forward with a controversial proposal that threatens net neutrality and the open Internet, lobbying activity looks like it has reached a fevered pitch. But for the companies involved—especially the telecom companies that are eager to be allowed to charge more for a “fast lane” of Internet service—lobbying has been at a fevered pitch for almost a decade.

Perhaps you will be surprised to hear that the “real problem” I am referring to is not lobbying per se.1 Rather, it’s the fact that only net neutrality opposers have been playing the game for “almost a decade.” Just like SOPA supporters, “fast” lane advocates have been making their case for a very long time, and the tech industry has been largely absent. Sure, we’re making a fuss now, but note that at last week’s hearing the FCC approved the fast lane approach. Last minute protests didn’t work.

It’s no longer enough to just complain. We as an industry need to complain with solutions, and do it on an ongoing basis.

I care deeply about the net neutrality debate, but the reason I am writing this is my fear that what we are witnessing is the start of a pattern that will hurt tech industry in the long run. Those who are injured by the impact of technology will diligently make their case in the political realm, while we in the industry who genuinely believe we are changing the world ignore the messiness of politics. And then, suddenly, we will be blindsided again and again by unfavorable legislation or regulation, at which point we will raise a fuss, with ever decreasing effectiveness.

The truth isn’t just that technology has had an impact on society, but that it is only getting started. A few months ago, in FiveThirtyEight and the End of Average I wrote about the power curve in journalism; this idea, though, is broadly applicable to every field touched by technology. The ease of communication and distribution on the Internet is rendering vast swathes of the economy uncompetitive, even as certain sectors, companies, and individuals reap absolutely massive profits. I am by no means saying this is a bad thing, but I am certainly sympathetic to those who can no longer compete. I am also extremely concerned that recourse for these changes will increasingly be sought through the political process without tech having a seat at the table, much less a coherent solution for dealing with the human fallout of technological progress.

We as an industry absolutely need to wake up. SOPA, net neutrality, the Google bus protests – all of these are of a piece, and they are only the beginning.

I understand that politics is messy, and leaves one feeling just a bit queasy. I’ve been there, driving home from Albert Lea. But that queasiness is not a function of politics in the abstract, but the reality of any institution concerned with the behavior of humans. I am familiar with the desire to escape, to put one’s head down and do work that makes one proud, but I don’t know how much longer we as an industry have the luxury. I also know how easy it is to look at politics with a defeatist attitude: how much of a difference can one person make? And yet, working at scale is exactly what we as an industry are good at! Every business model in the Valley is predicated on the idea of serving massive groups of customers with easily repeated processes and software. We can do this.

The world is changing because we are changing it, just like we all wanted to, and now it’s time to grow up and deal with the consequences in a serious way. I truly hope that the fight for net neutrality will only be the beginning.

  1. Although I absolutely agree that we need to reform how we deal with money in politics