Net Neutrality: A Seductive Political Euphemism

At the end of 2012, there were 634 million websites scattered across the world. In the U.S., physical connections to websites are carried by dozens of commercial backbone operators and large last mile ISPs (Internet Service Providers), such as those using cellular, satellite, cable, fiber or plain old copper. As well, there are hundreds of smaller ISPs, including many small ISPs, over builders, Wi-Fi and WiMax networks.

Broadband connections are possible because of private company investments made over a 20-year period. Internet connectivity is public in the sense that anyone can get access through a subscription agreement to use the massive investments of ISPs, but the public does not own the Internet.

When trying to whip up public support for any issue, movement naming is important — even if the name is disingenuous. Net neutrality is a political euphemism coined by Tim Wu to support activist regulation on how ISPs package and price their Internet access.

The euphemism is meant to evoke fear that ISPs will unfairly restrict how customers use the Internet. Reality contradicts that. ISPs will sell as much Internet access as possible at a competitive price, and they will continually invest in bandwidth to keep pace with competitors and to meet customer demand. Investments will continue while ISPs earn a decent yield.

Most of us never download more than a few gigabits a month and don’t put a strain on the network’s capacity. Others download hundreds of gigabits each month. In fact, 84 percent of Internet traffic is from those downloading video. And, by one measure, 5 percent of users account for 45 percent of the all Internet traffic.

To rationally meet customer demand, ISPs need to offer tiers of service — where slower access or fewer bytes are priced lower than faster access uncapped volumes of data. If all usage patterns were priced at an “average cost,” then those choosing slower access would be forced to subsidize those with high bandwidth consumption.

Net Neutrality’s loudest voices come from those who sell or promote the high volume downloads or applications that require high speeds, or from a few who cannot resist populism on any topic. The net neutrality movement does not represent the interests of most customers who need modest speeds or data volumes. Those modest users are being lined up as sacrificial lambs to pay future Internet access subsidies. Those pretending otherwise are fantasizing that ISPs can be forced to subsidize customers. They are not familiar with the Fifth Amendment.

Net neutrality has been a game of lobbyist football since 2004, and federal courts have twice booted out populist net neutrality regulations from the FCC.

While public engagement on issues is good, wise policy makers are aware that public sentiment on emotional issues can vacillate radically over relatively short periods. Wise policymakers also know how easy it is to fuel populist sentiment.

Prohibition is a glaring example. The temperance movement forced politicians to amend the constitution in 1920 to ban manufacture, transport and sale of alcoholic beverages. By 1933, the public thought better of that populist nonsense and forced legislatures to repeal it.