Now that net neutrality is in the news again thanks to President Obama’s strong statement in favour of it yesterday, it’s worth revisiting one of the core tenets of technology.
In a free market, when technology increases personal freedom, it succeeds. When it tries to diminish personal freedom, it fails. People stop using it, and it becomes irrelevant. Not always immediately, but eventually and inevitably.
Technology is not a staple. You don’t need it to live. It’s not food, or water, or shelter, or clothing. It’s a luxury.
People adopt luxury goods for a lot of different reasons — to look important to their friends and peers, to alleviate boredom, to make their lives a little bit easier or more comfortable.
But in the case of technology products, the huge groundbreaking hits only happen when the technology in question frees people from a more burdensome way of doing things. That’s true whether individuals are buying those products for themselves, or whether they’re choosing to use them in the workplace. (The old days of a company’s IT department buying a crummy product and forcing it down employees’ throats is coming to an end, and never worked all that well anyway — every big company has a mountain of “shelfware,” products that were bought and maybe tested, but never widely rolled out because employees hated them and refused to use them.)
Take a quick trip through the last 30 years of technology:
- Computing originally took off in businesses because it freed employees from doing mundane, repetitive tasks that could be accomplished more quickly and reliably by a machine. (Employers loved it too because computers don’t complain, organise, and so on.)
- In the 1980s, the personal computer took off because it freed workers from relying on expensive and tightly controlled central computers to get those tasks done.
- In the 1990s, early web directories like Yahoo, and later on search engines, culminating in Google, freed people from looking up information in books and driving to the library if they didn’t have the book they needed.
- Amazon took off because it freed people from the task of real-life comparison shopping at multiple stores, then driving to the right store, picking the item off the shelf, standing in line, and so on.
- The iPod and digital music took off because it freed people from carrying CDs around. (Once upon a time, I hauled a portable CD player and 30 discs around as I was backpacking through Asia. I’d trade CDs with other travellers as I grew bored with them.)
- The smartphone took off because it freed people from carrying a PC for work and play.
- Every form of digital communication, starting with email through instant messaging and social networks, freed people from having to pay personal visits or spend time on the phone in order to stay in touch with their friends and colleagues.
The real proof, though, comes in the abject failure of technology that seeks to restrict individual freedom. Some examples:
- The walled-garden content model espoused by AOL and CompuServe fell to the anything-goes open Internet.
- Technical schemes to prevent music and DVD piracy generally failed to stop all but the most casual thieves.
- Most attempts by companies to prevent employees from using smartphones and unmanaged online services like Dropbox to get their work done generally fail; smart employees figure out how to route around the restrictions in ways that are invisible to the technologies monitoring them.
You can argue about whether these advances in technology are for better or worse. Maybe the service and experience at the local hardware store made the drive and the wait worthwhile, and maybe we were psychologically healthier when we phoned all our long distance friends every few months.
But the point is, technology only takes off if it allows people to do something they really want to do, more easily than they could do it before.
There are lots of nuanced arguments for and against regulating and enforcing “net neutrality” in all its forms, including the form the president endorsed yesterday. But it’s easy to imagine a worst-case situation with regard to net neutrality. ISPs and wireless providers could come up with endless bundles of different services, similar to how TV providers do it today. Unsupported services would become slow, or unusable. Prices would go up every year or two, and the bundles would be shifted based on the business models of the companies providing the services.
What would that do to demand for Internet service in the long run?
It’s very hard to imagine a case where restricting the free flow of information over the Internet would somehow increase demand for Internet service.
Service providers should think carefully before they press for something that in the end could drive customers away.
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