Imagine attaching a wireless router to your cable modem and being charged with a federal crime for doing so. Before the principles of network neutrality were enunciated by the FCC, AT&T did just that. The telephone company repeatedly warned customers that using Wi-Fi for home-networking constituted “theft of service” and could be considered a federal offense.
Nearly all Americans (99.6%, at last count) receive broadband service from either a phone company or a cable company. This, in antitrust terms, is a duopoly — a virtual monopoly that restricts consumer choice and provides no incentives for competition.
1. A History of Discriminatory Conduct
Incumbent telephone and cable operators, who maintain a government-regulated monopoly for hard-wired connections to the home, have a sordid history of discriminating against content providers that they deem “unacceptable” or threatening to their business models. Only the continued vigilance of individual users, non-profits, and corporations, all of whom oppose network discrimination, will prevent further biased conduct on the part of the cable-and-telco monopolies.
In 2004, a telephone company was fined by the FCC for blocking the Vonage VoIP service. In 2005, Canadian telecom giant Telus blocked access to a pro-labor union website. That year Time Warner’s AOL service blocked all emails that mentioned “dearaol.com”, a campaign that opposed AOL’s pay-to-send email scheme. And in 2007, Comcast began degrading subscribers’ BitTorrent traffic — without warning — by forging packets to simulate dead connections.
The Wall Street Journal and other communications carrier apologists repeatedly argue that regulation of their network management tactics is unnecessary. The Internet has never required regulation, they argue, yet the very cases above testify to behavior typical of government-regulated monopolists. And FCC officials routinely conflate network neutrality with excessive regulation when, in fact, it aims to eradicate a raft of regulations, prevent discrimination, and ensure free speech for all.
2. What Is Net Neutrality?
Net neutrality simply means “no discrimination.”
It prevents network operators from blocking, speeding up, or slowing down content based upon:
- or destination
Let’s use the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” as an example. Some Congressional Democrats espouse resurrecting an equal time “principle” that would regulate speech on radio, television (broadcast, cable ,and satellite), and the Internet. The doctrine mandates that commercial content distributors (e.g., radio stations) present opposing viewpoints whether the market supports such activities or not. In the past, content distributors chose to avoid all controversial material for fear of running afoul of regulators. The doctrine had the net effect of suppressing free speech and was subsequently eliminated by the Reagan administration.
The Fairness Doctrine equates to network discrimination — the very opposite of net neutrality — whereby the government or its proxies, in this case the telco and cable monopolies, dictate content rather than letting the market decide.
For example, consider a hypothetical telco monopoly called AT&V. Let’s pretend that AT&V created its own search engine. While not nearly as efficient as Google or Yahoo!, AT&V figures that for reasons of “Fairness,” it should be able to discriminate against other search engines. For that purpose, the provider decides to slow down Google and Yahoo’s search results so that AT&V’s inferior search appears to work just as quickly or even “faster.”