To nobody’s particular surpise, yesterday president Barack Obama endorsed a form of net neutrality. And immediately, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) came out swinging against it, calling it, “Obamacare for the Internet.”
Sen. Cruz appears to have either failed to read, or refused to read, the four-point proposal, which is short and simple enough to fit on an index card, if not a business card. He also failed to discuss the alternative–and there is a perfectly fair alternative to net neutrality.
Astroturfer Phil Kerpen once told me net neutrality is the biggest government intervention in history. This too is a mischaracterization, since a thorough explanation of it is shorter than the mission statement of at least one business I’ve worked for. Sarbanes-Oxley, an act designed to protect shareholders of public companies, is but one example of a much more complex act. I know because complying with Sarbanes-Oxley is part of what I do for a living. Compared to SOX, Net Neutrality is a cakewalk.
Let’s get to that explanation, lest I spend more words yammering than the actual explanation contains:
- No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business.
- No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others — through a process often called “throttling” — based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.
- Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.
- No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.
That’s all. There’s no need to try to oversimplify it–the simplicity is all right there in the nine words in boldface.
But there is an alternative. ISPs claim they can’t block Internet traffic based on content, which is how they get around being held liable for copyright infringement and other criminal behavior online.
Of course, ISPs’ behavior proves that, yes, they can block or slow down traffic based on content, where they have the will to do so. They’re happy to detect and throttle streaming video like Netflix because some consumers use it as an alternative to buying television service from their ISP.
So there are two logical choices:
1. ISPs aren’t responsible for what travels over their wires, so they’re a utility, and they need to transmit data without preferring one sender or form of content over another.
2. ISPs are fully responsible for what travels over their wires, so they are free to discriminate however they choose. However, because they are capable of inspecting every packet, they also bear some responsibility if a subscriber uses their wires to commit a crime.
The status quo allows ISPs to have it both ways, and reap the benefits of being a utility when it’s beneficial to be a utility, but reap the benefits of not being a utility when it’s better not to be.
For those seeking less complexity and less intervention from government, this form of net neutrality is actually much less complex than the status quo. But if you really think those nine words in bold are too much, here’s another simplification: Give consumers the best experience possible and trust the market.
That is, if you really have the guts to trust the market. Do you, Mr. Kerpen? Do you, Mr. Cruz?
I’m not the only one thinking this way: The Verge argues convincingly that net neutrality is actually a conservative idea. I can’t figure out which side option 2 belongs on, but it requires more thought and greater knowledge of computer networking than either political party is willing or able to do these days. Anymore it seems U.S. politics boils down to whether the top tax rate should be 36 or 39 percent plus two or three other core issues and, whenever the other party has the wherewithal to speak first, simply disagreeing. So I suppose this is what we get.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.