Tech-industry folks love to frame industry lobbying campaigns as morality crusades instead of as the self-interest stumping they are.And we certainly don’t blame them for that. As the banking industry demonstrated during the financial collapse, when you can persuade everyone that the world will end if you don’t get a bailout, you’ll get a bailout.
But it’s worth calling out the tech industry’s passion for the latest cause, “net neutrality,” for what it is: self-interest.
Tech folks are up in arms at the thought that new laws might allow Internet Service Providers to charge more to deliver some bits than others–including offering “premium” tiers in which some folks can pay to have their bits delivered faster than other bits.
Such a practice, tech folks say, will lead to favoritism and will stifle innovation, as the ISPs cut sweetheart deals with rich companies and penalise poor ones.
Another way of saying the same thing is that tech folks want ISPs to be forced to continue to give all tech startups a free lunch while subsidizing their innovation.
Unlike many tech startups, ISPs need a lot of capital: Buying routers and switches, laying fibre, and supporting paying customers costs real money. And it seems a safe bet that, if the tech startups had to pay these costs, they’d be screaming for the ability to get paid for their efforts–by charging the folks who want to use the services. But because tech startups don’t currently have to pay those costs, they’re stumping hard to maintain the status quo–and, cleverly, arguing that it best serves the national interest.
In short, it’s easy to see why poor startups and massive bandwidth consumers might prefer that ISPs be forced to treat every bit the same. But from a moral and economic fairness perspective, this stance is ridiculous.
ISPs spend billions of dollars building fibre networks. Why shouldn’t they be able to charge what the market will bear to deliver bits over those networks? If people want their bits delivered quickly and securely, they can pay more. If they don’t, they can pay less. It’s as simple (and fair) as that.
To see how self-serving the “net neutrality” concept is, all you have to do is glance at the physical world.
Those shipping and transport companies spent billions of dollars building their transportation networks. They have every right to charge whatever the market will bear to deliver stuff via them.
No one has any problem with the concept that the Post Office treats overnight packages differently than slow-boat ones. Importantly, they also charge different rates depending on what is in the package–see “book rate” and all pricing by weight. So why all this hullaballoo about “NET NEUTRALITY”?
Note: Some folks limit the “net neutrality” debate to the actual content of the bits that are being delivered–video versus email, for example, or, even more extreme, religious content vs secular content. I’m not talking about THAT type of discrimination. Of course the telcos shouldn’t be able to analyse what bits MEAN and be able to discriminate based on that.
That form of discrimination would be like the Post Office shipping packages at different speeds depending on whether they were sent by Republicans or Democrats. That’s an absurd argument, and I’ve never heard the telcos lobby for it. The idea that a telco should be able to tag some bits “speedy delivery” and others “regular”, however, is perfectly reasonable. But that doesn’t stop people from going insane about it.)
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