Re: ‘Net neutrality is a boon’ – Not so fast

After I called for the abolition of telecom monopolies in a post critiquing the principle of ‘net neutrality’, Jordan Bloom of the Virginia Informer published a response complaining that I’m “defending the interests of a few huge monopolistic corporations in the name of a ‘free market.'”  I beg to differ:  I actually called for a “federal law that prohibits state and local governments from granting any special monopoly privileges to local telecom companies.”

I should clarify what I mean by “local”:  I’m talking about companies or divisions of companies that ask, and receive, monopoly protection from states and municipalities.  These “local” providers are often merely units of larger companies, so eliminating such monopoly protection is important to the country as a whole.  I respond to several of Bloom’s other points below.

“Deep-pocket inspection” basically means intercepting data, and in the proposed legislation for net neutrality, ISPs would be forbidden from doing so. Dexter proposes that this would lead to the macabre example of doctors unable to access vital medical materials because too many people are on YouTube.

YouTube videos are actually relatively well-compressed compared to the streaming data and torrents that the top one percent or so of users of non-tiered broadband services love so much. ‘Net neutrality’ advocates want these people to pay the same monthly price as people who use much less bandwidth. Why? Bloom’s post doesn’t answer that question.

My answer is that heavy Internet users want other people to cover the costs they’re imposing on networks.  These people will include a constituency, the less well-off, that both of us expressed particular concern for.  Bloom specifically mentions “those unable to attend decent public schools or afford more costly education.”  But as I’ve already explained, basic market forces dictate that turning the Internet into a public utility will just slow down speeds for everyone.

Bloom then defends ‘net neutrality’ rules on the grounds that they will protect people engaging in copyright infringment:

Because torrenting and other forms of illegal filesharing account for a huge margin of internet traffic, copyright infringement is a part of this issue. Allowing deep-pocket inspection by ISPs for bandwidth throttling or any other purpose would be tantamount to creating a database of subpoena-able material for copyright cases. More file-sharing grandmothers will find themselves with millions in legal fees or jail time. How quickly we forget that the evil empires of the RIAA and MPAA have opposed net neutrality from the beginning.

Copyrights exist to protect someone’s private property.  Opposition to basic intellectual property protections like copyrights typically comes from the political far-left, so I’m surprised that I’m having to defend private property in this context. But while I could be persuaded to agree that courts have better things to do than allow the RIAA to litigate against music sharers, who says that ISPs will make investments to record every single bit of information on the content of packets that pass through their networks?  That would probably be unreasonably expensive.

Comcast once used deep-packet (not pocket; we’re talking about network packets) inspection to degrade BitTorrent traffic. Much of that traffic was illegal. But the outcome of the incident should allay any ‘net neutrality’ advocates’ fears about increased enforcement of private property laws:  Comcast dropped its packet filtering policies after lawsuits and a backlash from hordes of angry copyright-infringing downloaders and others.  The legal system performed as it should have, and these consumers got what they wanted, despite the fact that they were engaging in legally questionable activity.  Under ‘net neutrality,’ Comcast couldn’t even have tried to improve service for those conducting largely legal activity by degrading service for those conducting largely illegal activity. (Not all torrent traffic is illicit, of course! However, much of it is – hence Comcast’s failed attempt at packet filtering.)

Bloom also misunderstands my fundamental concerns about ‘net neutrality’ rules:

The new regulations, so he echoes the Wall Street Journal, were pushed by raving Marxists, and endless downloads of flash games and porn will threaten the Internet’s more noble transactions.

Flash games definitely don’t pose a threat, and neither does illicit content. The point I made in my original post was this: the inability of carriers to ask big-time Internet users to pay their fair share is what will increase costs for everyone and decrease speed for those trying to download content.  What the content is doesn’t really matter.

In the more-competitive telecom market I’ve called for, the already-trivial threat of carriers using deep-packet inspection to speed up more important traffic will be even less problematic, because telecom companies will feel more competitive pressure and will be unable to unilaterally discriminate against illegal filesharing and downloads of illicit content. So there’s no need for the FCC to unilaterally impose Internet regulations, because the welfare of the illegal file-sharers and illict content-downloaders Bloom apparently seeks to protect is already secure.  ‘Net neutrality’ is a solution searching, without much luck, for a market failure to address.

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