Imagine a scenario in which the road network was owned and operated by private companies. There would need to be some sort of road charging system to raise the necessary revenues, which would be fine – as long as acceptable standards of quality and affordability were achieved.
But what if the operating companies decided to restrict access to the road network for commercial reasons? For instance, by doing a deal with one of the big supermarkets to give its fleet of delivery vehicles priority over those of its competitors. This might involve banning the competitor vehicles altogether or merely imposing a lower speed limit upon them – either way the favoured supermarket would have bought itself an advantage without doing anything for its customers.
Most people would be horrified by such a development. It would rightly be seen as a rent-seeking threat to free competition and the consumer interest. There’d be intense pressure on government to legislate for equal and non-discriminatory access to the road network.
Now, instead of the roads, apply the same concepts to the underlying infrastructure of the internet. Here, the principle of equal and non-discriminatory access is known as ‘net neutrality’ – and in a report for Wired, Marvin Ammori warns that we’re in danger of losing it:
“…the second most powerful court in [America] behind the Supreme Court, the DC Circuit — is set to strike down the nation’s net neutrality law, a rule adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 2010… Despite eight years of public and political activism by multitudes fighting for freedom on the internet, a court decision may soon take it away.”
According to Ammori, some of the companies that own the physical substance of the internet are pushing for an end to net neutrality so that they can make money out of ‘net partiality’:
“…AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and others [have] declared a war on the internet’s foundational principle: that its networks should be ‘neutral’ and users don’t need anyone’s permission to invent, create, communicate, broadcast, or share online. The neutral and level playing field provided by permissionless innovation has empowered all of us with the freedom to express ourselves and innovate online without having to seek the permission of a remote telecom executive.”
Both technologically and legally, this is a highly complicated area. There are all sorts of ways in which the internet companies can advantage or disadvantage those who use their networks. A simple regulatory ban on blocking particular users (as proposed by Congress) would still provide plenty of scope for discrimination:
“…we know internet users tend to quit using a website or application if it loads even just a few seconds slower than a competitor’s version, this no-blocking rule would essentially have enabled the phone and cable companies to discriminate by picking website/app/platform winners and losers.”
This is why it’s so important to maintain a comprehensive anti-discriminatory principle in law – which, by the way, is under threat in the European Union as well as in the United States.
Of course, there are arguments for relaxing the rules on net neutrality. For instance, if providers of online services like Google and Facebook are allowed to pick and choose between their customers (by privileging certain search results, for example), then why can’t the providers of the underlying physical infrastructure do the same?
The answer is that if consumers feel that Google or Facebook are acting against their interests then they can switch to a different search engine or social network. Things are different, though, when comes to the physical infrastructure of the internet. At this level the net is more like a utility, with competition and choice constrained by natural monopolies and oligopolies: hence the need for tougher regulation in the consumer interest.
Ultimately, the most powerful monopoly of them all is government – and in a democracy this gives the general public a trump card. If utility companies insist upon exploiting their position of strength, they shouldn’t complain if we, as ordinary consumers and voters, respond by exploiting ours.