Net Neutrality Has Become An Industrial Policy

Scott Cleland Contributor
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The net neutrality movement has lost its way.

Net neutrality used to be a principle to protect Internet users — now it’s devolving into political messaging to hide an industrial policy that could harm users.

Professor Tim Wu coined the term “net neutrality” as a network non-discrimination principle.

The first practical government definition of net neutrality was a unanimous bipartisan FCC which defined net neutrality to be a user’s right to access the legal content, apps, services and devices of their choice.

However, after the U.S. D.C. Court of Appeals effectively ruled in January that the FCC did not have the legal authority to ban a two-sided Internet market by imposing a permanent zero-price for all downstream traffic, the net neutrality movement has radically changed its focus.

Since then, the movement appears to have nearly abandoned Internet users’ concerns.

In opposing a two-sided Internet market, the movement is strongly protecting Silicon Valley’s economic interests by strongly opposing any payment for quality-of-service or specialized-network services for Silicon Valley’s bandwidth-dominating services like video streaming.

Ironically, the new net neutrality slogan of “no fast lanes” runs counter to the net neutrality movement’s past focus that broadband has not been fast enough and that the U.S. was falling behind the rest of the world in broadband speeds. Does the net neutrality movement now want a faster Internet or not?

And the movement’s other new neutrality slogan, “no paid prioritization,” further abandons users’ interests because it implies no user right or freedom to decide to prioritize their individual Internet traffic based on what they individually want, need and value.

If there hasn’t been a radical shift in what net neutrality is supposed to mean, why was it that Silicon Valley’s representative in Congress, California Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo, sponsored a contest on Reddit this past summer to “re-brand net neutrality?”

In addition, how do we know that net neutrality has ceased to be a “principle” and has devolved into political messaging for the desired industrial policy du jour?

The net neutrality movement claims to support the “principle” that Internet infrastructure should “treat all data equally” with “no fast lanes” allowed.

However, the net neutrality movement also strongly supports the FCC effectively banning a two-sided Internet bandwidth market via a permanent FCC-set, zero-price for downstream traffic. Simply one side of the market is treated differently, or not-equally, from the other side.

An FCC two-sided market ban also means an FCC-mandated, net neutrality “receiving-party-pays” economic model.

Ironically, that model is the exact opposite of a traditional “telecommunications” utility “sending-party-pays” economic model under Title II of the Communications Act, which is also a legal “option” that the FCC is considering using to implement its latest iteration of net neutrality policy.

An FCC two-sided market ban would mandate stark traffic discrimination and inequality by allowing payment for upstream traffic, but disallowing payment for downstream traffic.

Such patently unequal data treatment would mean that Silicon Valley corporate users have more rights and benefits than individual Internet users.

That’s because Internet users are expected to pay the full cost of the Internet’s infrastructure by subsidizing all of Silicon Valley’s disproportionate downstream traffic.

This also creates unequal treatment concerning “no fast lanes.” Internet users have long paid for different speed tiers or “lanes” to access the Internet. If they want to receive and send traffic faster they simply pay for a faster Internet service tier.

And users know that different Internet access technologies (wireless, satellite, cable or fiber) inherently deliver data at different speeds, so a user’s choice of technology also can naturally result in faster or slower lanes of Internet traffic delivery.

The rest of the world is figuring out that net neutrality is less a real consumer protection principle and more “Trojan horse” messaging for an industrial policy to benefit Silicon Valley and other interests who seek stealth economic subsidies and competitive/trade advantages.

Unfortunately, the net neutrality movement’s fluid industrial policy redefinitions of “net neutrality” encourage other countries to also adopt their own Internet industrial policies under their own self-serving definition of “net neutrality.”

The myopic Silicon Valley-bankrolled net neutrality movement may be furthering the break-up and de-Americanization of the global Internet.

Scott Cleland served as Deputy U.S. Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy in the George H. W. Bush Administration. He is President of Precursor LLC, a research consultancy for Fortune 500 companies, and Chairman of NetCompetition, a pro-competition e-forum supported by broadband interests.