Net Neutrality: The Stopped Clock is Right Twice a Day, November 16, 2014

In recent news, US President Obama has proposed that so-called “Net Neutrality” should be enforced by classifying internet service providers as utilities under “Title II”.

I have not been shy about criticizing Obama for his policies, especially his “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” aka “Obamacare”. However, I’m certain that he is right when he says that the major internet service providers are engaging in unethical behavior that needs to be illegal. Their abuses are well-documented.

Comcast was able to make Netflix sign a deal with them in which Netflix paid Comcast to deliver Netflix’s content to their customers without hinderance. Here is one report on the incident. What Comcast did was unethical. when a customer signs up for service from Comcast, they are paying for access to the internet, not just whatever parts of the internet Comcast feels like providing. Comcast is engaging in double-dipping; when a customer connects their computer to netflix’s service, they have a reasonable expectation that a connection is provided; but Comcast refused to provide this service. Comcast demanded that netflix pay for the connection that the customer already paid for.

To use an analogy, imagine that you’re the CEO of Pizza Hut. Suppose that Sprint customers call and complain that their calls are frequently dropped while calling to order pizza. You call Sprint and tell them that these dropped calls are destroying your business; you depend on customers being able to call you. Instead of fixing the problem, Sprint tells you that you must pay them money to guarantee that calls to Pizza Hut won’t be dropped. This would be outrageous because Sprint’s customers are already paying for the phone calls! Comcast essentially did exactly this to Netflix. What’s even worse is that Comcast also provides cable TV, so they have an interest in hurting Netflix!

Here’s another documented abuse: It was recently discovered that Verizon Wireless was modifying customers’ connections to web servers. Normally, when you view a web page, your browser sends information to the web server called an “HTTP request” that describes what page you want to see and any data that the server needs to provide it. The web page is sent back to your browser in an “HTTP response”. That should be simple enough, but Verizon was recently caught modifying their customers’ HTTP requests. They were adding in a unique tracking number to every customer! This essentially means that their customers have absolutely no privacy when connecting to any web server that knows how to read the tracking number! This is akin to visiting a shopping mall and every store you walk into automatically knowing your social security number. Here's the story.

I’m certain that there are many other abuses committed by internet service providers, many of them undiscovered.

In my mind, the appropriate solution to this problem is for customers of abusive internet service providers to vote with their wallet and take their money elsewhere, but because of the way that the market for internet service has become a monopoly in many markets, this doesn’t appear practical. That it has become a monopoly (or duopoly) is another problem.

I have reluctantly come to agree that we need regulations on internet service providers to include Net Neutrality. The basic idea here is that an internet service provider should be required to provide you with the service you pay for; they should not be allowed to promote certain services with faster connections or penalize others with slow or unreliable connections. They should also, under no circumstances, be allowed to modify your traffic in any way, such as adding identifying information about you to your data.

Unfortunately, many people have entirely misunderstood what this means. As someone who has been critical of President Obama, I am particularly disappointed with what Texas Senator Ted Cruz (one of Obama’s leading critics) said about Net Neutrality; one would think that he did not research at all before he went out and complained that Net Neutrality is like Obamacare for the web.

To say that Net Neutrality, as I described it, is like Obamacare for the internet is absolute nonsense, and since Senator Cruz has a following, I want to explain why.

Obamacare mandates that Americans buy health insurance with certain coverages. It mandates that employers provide health insurance to employees. It subsidises the purchase of health insurance by some Americans. There are other features, but this is the core of Obamacare. I have been critical of Obamacare because Obama himself said that it would lower health insurance costs for Americans. Instead, they have gone up even faster than before. I believe that the problem is that Obamacare does help Americans buy health insurance, but does little or nothing about the high cost of the healthcare that the insurance must pay for!

Net Neutrality has absolutely nothing to do with any of this. It doesn’t demand that anyone buy anything; it doesn’t require employers to provide anything to their employees, and it doesn’t subsidize the purchase of anything. All it does is it requires internet service providers to fairly provide service that customers are paying for.

However, I can’t say that I entirely agree with President Obama that we need to have Title II classification for internet service providers. Critics of this plan suggest that it could make it could reduce investment in new infrastructure and impose higher costs on customers. They also point out that Title II was written long before the internet existed.

My concern is that imposing Net Neutrality could be used as a smokescreen for introducing harmful regulations, such as giving even more power to the three-letter agencies to surveil the internet.

I would suggest that what needs to happen is that public advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union need to get together with advocates for the internet service providers and work out a framework that’s more appropriate for today’s internet, with consideration for tomorrow’s internet.

In the meantime, I would like to thank President Obama for bringing this issue to the forefront and ask that those criticizing Net Neutrality more carefully research the facts. There are legitimate criticisms of Obama’s proposal, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Obamacare.