Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Debating Net Neutrality

I've been debating net neutrality for quite some time now on Facebook and on Google+. Well, mostly on Google+, I guess Google+ is more intellectual than Facebook, but I don't really know for sure.

In reviewing the debates I've had on Google+, I've noticed a few interesting patterns. The first one is pretty obvious: there is a severe dearth of facts coming from the faction that hates the idea of reclassifying ISPs as Title II common carriers. Even when they come up with something so specific that it could be a fact, they are loathe to come up with a reference, you know, a link.

Maybe that's because there is this fantasy that the market is rational and that it will correct itself from the abysmal service we're now getting from ISPs we all hate. Even when pressed to provide concrete examples, opponents of reclassification are unwilling to provide the proof needed to support their position.

Another pattern I've noticed is that opponents of reclassification seem to have missed something: things got this bad even though no reclassification has been done. Proponents of the status quo will tell us over and over again that reclassification will reduce our ISPs to humdrum services that will slowly devolve to mediocre services that will never get better. Here's the problem: we already have that.

We've given the ISPs subsidies and tax breaks for more than a decade and they have really done nothing close to keeping up with world class ISPs in other developed countries like Japan, Norway, Finland and South Korea. Really, we're not even close.

If we really want to revive our staid internet carriers, there are at least two things that need to happen:

1. Reclassify our ISPs as carriers under Title II. This will have three particularly obvious effects: it will force carriers who own the pipes to share their pipes at wholesale pricing, drive selfish investors away and it will force carriers to divest or spin-off their content properties.
2. As investors flee from traditional ISPs due to reclassification (as predicted by so many people who don't really know for sure), we need to remove state barriers to community broadband so that internet access becomes what should have been from the beginning: a state owned, transparently regulated utility. When internet access is sold as a utility service, suddenly, the network becomes neutral about where content is coming and where it is going.

This is not a political issue as it transcends the entire political spectrum. Conservative communities in Colorado have voted in favor, and sometimes overwhelmingly so, of communities to build their own broadband networks, even after rigorous barriers have been passed into law. Democrat, Republican, conservative, and liberal alike, they all agree that the status quo sucks and they are looking for something better. And they are doing it without Congress.

While members of Congress are scoring points in favor of hobbling and stifling internet access, communities are going it alone. Conservatives hate to see the FCC get involved because they think it's a state's rights issue. Never mind the millions they get from incumbent carriers to keep the status quo. Liberals in Congress tend to oppose net neutrality because they are friends to copyright interests, and anything that keeps the spigot small means more DVD and BluRay sales.

Unfortunately, the corrupting influence of money in Congress means that they aren't listening to the rest of us. They don't see the more than 400 communities that have already built their networks, with many of them delivering gigabit access to their residents. And they certainly don't see those community broadband networks delivering the content without hindrance based upon origin and destination. Why not? Because community broadband networks are loyal to the communities they serve, not some jerk of a CEO in a corner office on 5th Avenue in New York, intent on using his bonus to buy his second home on the coast of Spain.

The monopolies are here because government allows monopolies to exist. The public monopolies, community broadband, are doing a great job of servicing their residents, by any measure. The private monopolies like Comcast, Time-Warner, ATT and Verizon are plowing their money into political contributions rather than their networks. They are setting up alliances to prevent encroachments like community broadband and Title II reclassification. Most of the problem arises from government, or the lack thereof. How did that happen?

The slow erosion of campaign finance regulation is how it happened. Once large companies figured out that they could pay for the laws they wanted, the regulators and regulations they wanted, they gave up on competition in the market. Now they compete in the government. Citizens United is the Supreme Court case that brought the issue to a head, to national recognition. Private monopolies and the lack of fundamental campaign finance reform got us here.

But we can get Congress and our state legislatures to listen to us again. Once we remove the incentives for big donors to spend their money on candidates and for candidates to rely upon them, then the Congress, and our state legislatures will once again be dependent upon the people, alone.

That is how we can restore freedom to the internet in the United States. But you won't hear any of that from opponents of net neutrality, reclassification or community broadband.
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