Do we have to worry about Net Neutrality or did it already disappear?

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In my Contemporary Media Issues class we have been discussing Tim Wu’s book, The Master Switch, for the last two weeks. In this last week, we have specifically moved on to how this relates to Net Neutrality. Although Wu presents a compelling argument that we are moving down a dangerous road, I’m not sure that I can fully agree with him.

My first thought on this issue is that the consumer/end user has way more choices than in previous examples of the cycle. In the past, there was only one choice to get your telephone service from. Today’s consumer can choose from a variety of technologies to get their Internet — DSL, Cable, LTE, WiMax, etc. The threat of losing business because of draconian non-neutrality policies scares the crap out of the big providers. Although a slightly different issue, an example of this almost occurred on Frontier Telephone’s DSL network. Frontier decided it would be a good idea to implement a very low data cap (only 5GB/month) on their DSL lines and even though they never actually implemented the change, it was not good for business. There was a lot of media coverage and they ended up losing quite a few customers to other providers because of this snafu. Frontier eventually scrapped all plans for this cap when a competitor in some of their larger markets, Time Warner Cable, decided it also wanted to try a cap system out. Frontier started marketing themselves as the anti-cap provider. Time Warner has also bowed to consumer pressure on this issue — they have been doing trials of cap based systems but haven’t figured out how to effectively sell and market such a system yet. Europe does have per byte billing, but European citizens are used to such a thing — they have had per minute telephone service forever (and if not forever, for quite a while), while US customers have been conditioned to unlimited calling for quite a while. My real concern here is the issue of collusion. As long as we can avoid collusion amongst competitors (and terrible regulatory decisions like the ones the CRTC has been making in Canada), there will always be another provider willing to make some money.

My second thought also kind of has to do with competition but on a much grander scale. The world today is incredibly interconnected and what flies in one country doesn’t necessarily fly in another. In other countries, the Internet is already locked down. In China, there are tons and tons of sites that aren’t allowed to be viewed but some people work out hacks to view them. In Egypt, they shut down Internet access outside the country during their recent uprising but people found ways around it AND these methods disseminated to tons of people, not just the “techies.” If there was no neutrality on the Internet, wouldn’t American versions of these opinion leaders figure out a way around it? And couldn’t this put pressure on the companies that are doing the “oppressing?” Would long-haul internet backbones not be forced to revert to their previous position? I suppose it could evolve into a war with consumer via more oppression and litigation (a method the music and film industries seem to be embracing). Doesn’t the consumer set the market?

Playing devil’s advocate, I guess I could say that we really haven’t ever had a true level playing field on the Internet. Most hosting is done per byte and if you can’t pay the big bucks for terabytes of data a month, your site will be shut down quickly (if it ever got that popular to need lots of data transfered). In addition, only the big companies can afford the fattest connections. The average person’s small site has much less bandwidth available to it than a large media conglomerate. My site is going to load slower than the NY Times nine out of ten times. Maybe not having “net neutrality” will exacerbate this “issue” but it kind of already exists.