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Neutrality or Neutrali-tarianism?

"Who are you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?"


The Problem

The conversation about Net Neutrality seems like a simple one: Proponents say that without it, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will run amok and adopt unfair practices to keep ahead of their competitors. This would be a horrible miscarriage of justice… if we only had a single ISP for the geographical region. It could even be used to stifle freedom of speech…except that new networks also have deep pockets and they keep a keen eye on their viewership. In fact, it should be a problem by now. The internet providers have had decades to institute these practices that proponents of formalized Net Neutrality. So, if there were a profit in it, wouldn’t they steer things in a way that benefits them?

They do, but you have to really dig to find the examples. Comcast limited bandwidth to streaming sites, and got sued by Netflix. Comcast maintained that the vast amounts of streaming was a burden on their network, but settled out of court. At the time, Comcast had a streaming option for on-demand movies as well, so the accusation was that the streaming was limited to favor their own system. This illustrates the problem with the whole argument: Basically, they want to limit what the ISPs are allowed to do, because of what they have the capability of doing. Nearly every case used to prop up the argument for this bill is the same: It is clear that the move could potentially, possibly, maybe unduly favor the ISP…but neither the intent or the “smoking gun” ever materializes.

Analysis

One of the biggest problems is that the MBA’s and Politicians do not understand how a computer-based company works. Bandwidth, storage space, and speed are not infinite, and new things are being added all the time. In terms of the internet, you could look at it as a hard-drive holding ninety-nine percent of its capacity at all times. Someone is always working to physically build new servers, and laying new cable. This comes with a real-world cost that is always added to the cost of the internet’s infrastructure. Think of value as energy: It is never created or destroyed. It is stored, transferred and changes appearance. The only people footing the bill for this is the Telecom companies: AT&T, Comcast and Cox Communications. This means that they need to innovate and add value because the cost of the business keeps climbing. Year after year, customers are asked to pay more money, while not really getting anything new. You may have noticed the “customer hot-potato” game Cox and AT&T are always in? This is because the market can only keep changing hands to generate revenue. It’s the financial equivalent to spanking the ketchup-bottle.

Netflix spends no money outside of the offices where its servers and employees are housed. Comcast runs every fiber optic cable, maintains the network and innovates new solutions. Netflix only adds new hardware if they want to expand their streaming library. In other words, Comcast’s limiting of the streaming could have been seen one of two ways. Firstly, as a Comcast unfairly taking advantage of their place in the business structure, or as Comcast trying to add value to its own service to answer an issue of demand. Is the consumer only properly served by Netflix streaming? How bad are the shows on Comcast streaming? Because Netflix has some serious stinkers. If you were a Comcast customer affected by this issue, you would still have streaming services available. So, who, aside from another for-profit corporation, had their freedom of speech stifled?

What did Comcast really do? Their sin was entering a race on their own track. They will always have an unfair advantage over websites, because they literally own all of the real-estate. Were they trying to fix the game against Netflix, or streaming sites in general? It actually doesn’t matter, the very appearance of impropriety on the party everyone else is beholden to means that it should be avoided. In the military, they tell you “Never gamble with the people depending on you.” Not because you would cheat them, but if they even groundlessly suspected it, all trust would be lost. So, yes, I think Netflix was in the right for suing Comcast, regardless of the defendant’s actual intent.

How did these companies know they were having the issues that are cited? If your access to bandwidth is going to define your business, you would pay close attention to that, wouldn’t you? Of course, you would. When you get in your car, you check your gas. When you sit down to pay bills, you check your bank account. The assumption that companies can be unfairly limited and not realize it shows you that the entire argument counts on the voters (You) not having a good grasp of technology.

Hell, there are phone apps that can check your internet speed, up or down, at peak intervals or track when an unexpected device connects to your Wifi. There are literally infinite ways to ensure fairness before we get to “Only the government can help us.”

This bill stresses consumer fairness, but is completely unable to prove any issues with consumer value exist. If it were about freedom of speech, could we institute a vetting process for the “documentaries” on Netflix? Black Fish, Making a Murderer, and Hot Girls Wanted are all misleading and respectively destroyed the world’s most successful wildlife protection project, accused police and prosecutors of criminal activity by omitting evidence that they filmed “on record,” and completely subverted decades of hard work by the adult film industry to transform into an ethical business. All of this is documented, but no one can do anything about it because of the first amendment. You can say what you like, to as many people as you can reach without interference from the government. If this is truly a case of information control, then they should beware of what they wish for.

A Political Nuclear-Weapon

As usual, it seems that the only answer we have before us is: (You guessed it.) Government Regulation. It is inconceivable that companies would track their profits, ensure they had the best possible interface with their customers and use the existing legal system to protect themselves. Oh, wait… that is exactly how every case that proponents of the bill use as evidence has turned out. Every one of them. I would argue that the current system works, why should we change anything? Why it is almost as if the government is behind the curve, and is finally seeing the internet for what it is.

The internet has become a kind of “proxy-mind” for the American political system. It is where we put our thoughts, how we communicate our thoughts to others, but most dangerously: it is where most of the information we use to develop those thoughts comes from. If the government has control then someone will still be poised to affect the flow of information, it would just be for a much more heinous kind of interference.

The real choice that we have before us is, which seems more damaging? Companies competing with other companies, or giving the government the charge over the internet. Personally, I have read zero stories about Comcast or AT&T manipulating votes, hiding illegal wars, or rounding up American citizens into concentration camps because they might commit espionage.

If you think I sound paranoid, let me enlighten you. I am talking about Watergate, where the incumbent President tried to access polling information. Then in the eighties, the CIA supported drug dealers and even foreign cartels, to fund the ground-to-air missiles that they sold to the Taliban. Yes, the United States, under President Ronald “Ray-Gun” Reagan, sold Stinger Anti-aircraft missiles to none other than Osama Bin Laden. What about the tens of thousands of Japanese Americans rounded up and put in camps in the Midwest? Even if we could ignore the obvious racism, these were not Residents or foreigners visiting the US. These were American citizens who were born here, went to school here and paid their taxes. I always want to include this when I am speaking about the government taking over private sectors, because this is real. This happened in our country, and I have chosen recent bi-partisan issues. That last one was authorized by Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the most celebrated Democrats of the last century.

In fact, I am curious when everyone got the idea that the government is fair and impartial? With the push for “Green Energy” such a huge part of today’s economy, why have you never heard that California still charges people with solar panels a “fee”? It turns out that all that icky-energy employs tens of thousands of Californians who can’t pay their income taxes if they are unemployed. So they slipped it a subsidy while no one was looking. What about how the California Department of Transportation spilled thousands of barrels of oil into the waters off Santa Barbara? Well, someone could sue them, except that it is against the law to sue the government for performing the duties you assigned it, regardless of how badly they perform said duties.

These were kept out of the public eye “for everyone’s own good.” Like any institution, the government has an interest in projecting a good look. The difference is that there is only one government, and no one is trying to root out their dark secrets. No one in competition with them trying to create new and better services. Sure, those new ideas will come with ethical dilemmas that we can’t predict, but it is nothing that is not already happening. You do not want the government in charge of the most important medium that we have to communicate because, without that, how can we act in our own best interests?

Conclusion

This is an elegant solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. These companies can track their metrics, their bandwidth, and monitor their viewership instantly. There is no Nielsen-box tracking what you watch, then providing monthly feedback to the networks, who then provide it to the producers. It is all instant, all information is direct (no chance for one company to subvert another with false numbers), and these companies all track it as if their success depended on it… because it does.

The fact that they would be doing much worse if they could is its own evidence in a way. Much like Stephen Hawking’s Time-Traveler experiment, no one is showing up. Which means that private entities have no profitable interest in controlling the massive multimedia network.

The bottom line is that this problem that they are saying the bill will solve is already covered through fair business practices. If one business infringes on another unfairly, they have a legal recourse that can answer that specific problem without restructuring internet oversight. Netflix sued Comcast and the matter was settled.

That is what happens if Adidas finds out Nike is paying for better placement at Footlocker, too. We don’t need new laws to solve this problem. That would only be affording extra legal protection to a specialized industry, which sounds an awful lot like lobbying. Moreover, this is not so much of a solution as it is a changing of the guard.

The other issue is the structure gives the government all the decision making power and no resources in the game. The FCC is not going to take over controlling things directly, but they will write regulatory policies that restrict the ISPs. Yes, yes. We can trust the government. Well, that is the exact same set up that caused the 2008 banking collapse. “Government regulation of how a business had to use its resources limits opportunity and leads to financial crisis.” It has happened… in this decade, and yet people seem under the impression that "This time they have it right!"

Nowhere is it said that the Free-Market means a level playing field. It is always harder for small companies and start-ups because you have to climb the mountain to reach the top. If they can level their playing field, of course they will back that option. However, this bill won’t level their playing field, it will simply put the FCC in regulatory control of the primary source of information in the modern era.

Other countries with this set up include Great Britain, who arrested several thousand people in the 1960s and 70s for listening to Rock and Roll pirate-stations. Queen Mum didn’t approve of the horrible noise, and therefore it was banned country-wide. This was not a by-gone era or a back-water despot. The Queen of England, the longest lasting world power in history, banned the entire country from listening to music she didn’t like. Think about that, in context, and you can only hope that you like the same kind of porn as the director of the FCC.

The purpose of this bill is definitely not consumer protection, and its role would be completely reactive. What it does do, is create a mechanism by which the Government would be able to regulate the flow of information on the internet. Think of all those hysterical Creationist blogs we would miss out on! Of course, being able to simply silence racists and anti-vaxxers would be easy. So would stifling the LGBT community and Veterans Groups.

A government that is allowed to control who speaks, and who hears is a government that never needs to worry about a revolution. As absurd as it sounds, this is a very dangerous proposal to the First Amendment.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and petition the government for the redress of grievances.”

It says, very clearly, that Congress is barred from any regulation over free speech. The argument that it was a different world back then doesn’t really hold water. Presuming you were smart enough to turn on a computer and navigate to this site, you realize that “Speech” is the exchange of any and all information. Just as “Right to bear arms” does, in fact, apply to M1-A1 Abrams tanks (Calm down, it is a conversation for another day). These were the first two concerns of the authors of the Constitution wanted to address for a reason: Without the first, our only recourse is warfare.

They knew that because that is exactly what England did not allow. Any challenge was sedition or treason and books could be banned, burned and even get their authors jailed for spreading enlightened ideas that cost the State money. Ideas like “Taking human beings as slave labor is kind of evil.” And “Hey, what happened to all of those people losing limbs overseas on our behalf?” These began as suppressed ideas that the State tried very hard to hush before they reached the mainstream. The digital age has made censorship easier if only we would allow them access.

All those pesky people questioning Climate Change? Wait, what people questioning climate change? No such thing. In fact, if you will check out Wikipedia.gov you will see that the dinosaurs first taught Jesus about Greenhouse Gases. After the crucifixion, Jesus was reincarnated as Al Gore and brought forth the message of imminent doom!

It sounds far-fetched, of course, but that is because the internet is a free and open medium. Yes, I am confident that ISPs will wrangle for a position at the expense of the consumer, or the merchants. I am equally confident that both of those entities have other direct-action responses, such as civil lawsuits to defend their interests.

What I have no confidence in is the government’s ability to say “no” to the temptation to get rid of competing voices. I know when I find myself trapped in a political debate, it is so easy to block the other person. However, I am a firm believer that we can learn from every point of view, even if all we learn is who is worthy of derision and censure.

We learned a lesson from Martin Luther King Jr: That the black American is the equal of all men in character, ability, and resourcefulness. We also learned from the white-supremacist movement: That challenges to this assertion are groundless. To hear how ridiculous an argument is, you have to hear it. You can’t disprove an opinion that you never hear.

The fact is that, in this country, no matter the century, the frontline of the war against tyranny is the battle to maintain a completely free and unregulated internet. This is the latest in a decade of challenges to this industry that, as far as anyone can tell, regulates itself quite well. We had better start paying much better attention because the fall-back position is the 2nd Amendment:

“The keeping of a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of the State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

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