What you really need to know about net neutrality

I ran across a former classmate’s name in Google News recently, and when I flipped through his back catalog, I found the very best definition of net neutrality that I’ve seen.

“Net neutrality is an arcane term that basically means consumers should be able to access any site or service they want on the Internet. It also means publishers of information or developers of applications or services can distribute their data to any Internet user without having to pay a toll to the users’ network provider.

“That’s basically how the Internet functions now. Generally, consumers don’t have to worry about their Internet providers blocking them from accessing particular websites or slowing down their access to certain sites. But rules guaranteeing net neutrality are needed because of the lack of competition among Internet service providers and the growing power they wield.”

A number of political pundits on the right are trying to spin net neutrality as some sort of rehash of the Fairness Doctrine, which was an attempt to balance the airwaves. Conservatives don’t like the Fairness Doctrine, since it made what exists on modern talk radio very difficult.

But Net Neutrality doesn’t have anything to do with politics. It has everything to do with, as Troy Wolverton puts it, charging tolls.

Here’s a scenario. Comcast now owns NBC. Comcast is an Internet provider. Without net neutrality, nothing stops Comcast from using its position as an ISP to make sure NBC web  content, including MSNBC, works really well when you watch it over your Internet connection, but Fox and ABC web content stutter and hiccup unless Fox and ABC pay fees to Comcast.

And Time Warner Cable could use its position to ensure that CNN web content works really well, while Fox News and MSNBC web content stutter and hiccup.

Some conservatives say that since Comcast owns the infrastructure, they should be able to charge people to use it. Except people already pay to use the infrastructure. Google already pays for its Internet connection, and I pay for mine. Why should Google pay twice?

Also consider that much of that Internet infrastructure was built with tax money to begin with.

I think someone needs to point out to the conservative pundits that Comcast is in the position to deliver its subscribers much better access to MSNBC than to Fox News. Perhaps that would change their tune.

Conservatives may argue that the market can fix that problem. Subscribers can just change ISPs to get better access. Except frequently they can’t. Even in some parts of major cities, you can only get broadband from the cable company or from the phone company, not both. Broadband has been available for about 15 years, and yet the market hasn’t seen fit to give two choices to everyone.

Internet service is already enormously profitable. There are ongoing maintenance costs, but mostly, it’s charging exorbitant rates to use infrastructure that was built up and paid for 10-15 years ago. There’s no need to double-dip.

I’m sure once Comcast extorts Rupert Murdoch and holds his content hostage until he pays up, the pundits will see the unintended consequences and start howling censorship. But if they get their way and it gets to that point, they’ll have nobody but themselves to blame.

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