Contentiousness of net neutrality will lead to spirited tech debate

Breanne Deppisch

Net neutrality” is a contentious subject. The debate itself exists somewhere in the crosshairs of arduously written Federal Communications Commission regulations, fumbling politicians and the lack of popular understanding of “big data” — where it exists and who has the power to manipulate it. If your aim is to alienate Americans almost everywhere, sprinkle in some good old bipartisan hostility and you’ve got yourself the perfect recipe. 

Yes, net neutrality is certainly complex to confront. But with both sides screaming “stifled innovation,” we must ask ourselves who the real winners and losers in this fierce debate are. What is the reality behind “net neutrality”?

The trouble is, the concept of net neutrality is a double-edged sword. Net neutrality, or the concept that internet service providers should treat all content equally, cannot be dismissed by the simple “big business versus big government” notion that exists in the standard debate. The current status quo is far more complex and so are the potential winners and losers. 

Internet service providers, the big guys such as Comcast and AT&T, can offer “fast lanes” to companies willing to cough up extra cash — offering prioritized service to content providers, freezing out the chance of competition from smaller start-ups, etc. For those of you who say this could never happen, think again. A little over a year ago, Comcast bullied Netflix into paying more for the data it used and slowed down the service speed for consumers until they complied. While this instance raises a host of different questions surrounding bandwidth and efficiency, the crux of the matter is that large providers have both the ability and the economic interest to treat content providers preferentially. 

The fact that broadband providers win big from this arrangement probably shocks almost no one. But the question here lies beyond the big guys, or our own hazy notions of online egalitarianism. What about investors and network infrastructure? Does the internet’s new FCC classification limit the incentive to expand?

Without the flow of extra cash from content giants, ISPs of the world might be hesitant to increase existing capacities for a surging demand. In fact, some venture capitalists contend that the longtime preferential status-quo is a necessary component of emerging internet business models. 

“Vertical integration of new features and services by broadband operators is an essential part of the innovation strategy companies will need to use to compete and offer customers the services they demand,” said Adam Theierer, a senior research fellow at George Mason University, in a 2004 article he wrote entitled “Net Neutrality: Digital Discrimination or Regulatory Gamesmanship in Cyberspace?” 

Leonid Bershidsky, a columnist at Bloomberg View, likens the “vertical integration” to Skype. The company, which provides free video-chats, was fought by telephone operators at every turn, and Skype was initially rejected by almost all mobile networks because its free service conflicted with traditional voice plans. 

“Skype eventually succeeded because it made deals with carriers, not because the government intervened on its behalf,” Bershidsky said. “It’s an example of [initially] disruptive startups and incumbents innovating successfully to the consumer’s benefit — perhaps because competition wasn’t disrupted by regulators in the name of “fairness’.”

Net neutrality is a lot of things, at its core. It is so many things, in fact, that trying to write about them all makes my brain hurt a little. But it’s not a partisan debate, despite what Sen. Ted Cruz’s Twitter feed might have you believe. And it’s not a scheme to limit innovation, because there are certainly content providers who stand to benefit from the arrangement. What it boils down to, essentially, is the idea of regulatory restraint. How much do we trust our government to enforce the organic concept of open internet?

Whether the FCC will approve the new regulations likely won’t be decided until later this year. And the “forbearance” they choose to implement can’t really be predicted yet. So like most other things in government, Americans everywhere will just have to do what we do best: cross our fingers, tweet our tweets and wait and see.

Deppisch is a government senior from League City.