I’m afraid that this post might make me come across as a bit of an uninformed idiot, but I need a topic for this week, and this one is timely. Feel free to flame me.
A hot topic these days among people who follow technology news is something called “net neutrality”. This is a complicated topic, so it’s entirely possible that I have this whole thing all wrong, but basically net neutrality as I understand it refers to the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) should not be able to prioritize one form of internet traffic over another. For an example of why this is important, let’s say that Comcast, which is the largest ISP in the United States, wanted to introduce a streaming video service. And let’s say that they wanted to bundle this service with their internet service subscriptions, and charge extra for it. One way they could get people to pay for this service is if they deliberately degraded other streaming video services, such as Netflix. Even if Comcast’s service cost more and didn’t provide as good a selection of content as Netflix, people would likely pay for it if Netflix barely worked over their internet connection.
Now, clearly since I’m a consumer, I’m biased in favor of consumers, so you’ll probably have to take everything I say here with a grain of salt, but doesn’t this sort of thing seem considerably anti-consumer? So on what grounds would you defend such a practice? Well, if you were John Boehner, you’d probably just rail incoherently against the government trying to usurp “freedom” and “rights”. Whose freedom, do you ask? That’s exactly what I’d like to know.
John Boehner, in case you don’t already know, is the Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States. One of the things that he is trying to accomplish as Speaker is to eliminate or at least defund the regulations that the Federal Communications Commission recently passed regarding net neutrality. These regulations are a bit of a joke in and of themselves, since they only apply to landline-based ISPs, like Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and not wireless ISPs like AT&T and Verizon. (Amusing side note: Verizon apparently doesn’t care that these regulations don’t apply to them, since they’re suing the FCC to get the regulations overturned anyway. This is even more ironic when you consider the fact that Verizon and Google jointly issued a policy proposal last year that was very similar to the regulations that the FCC eventually adopted.)
My problem with John Boehner’s views on net neutrality are kind of a microcosm of my problem with almost all of his views, as well as those of the Republican party as a whole. It seems to me that the Republican party’s entire platform is to oppose things that Democrats want, simply because Democrats want them. There’s no logic at all to Boehner’s reasoning for why net neutrality is bad.
Boehner gave a speech on February 27 outlining his position on net neutrality. Essentially, he stated that net neutrality is tantamount to a “government takeover” of the internet, and declared that he was “protecting our most basic freedoms” by opposing net neutrality. I have to wonder, whose freedoms is he talking about? The freedom of consumers to use the internet in any (legal) way they see fit? Or the freedom of ISPs to restrict what their customers can and can’t do on the internet?
Some of what he said in that speech makes me wonder if he even knows what the internet is. At one point he states that “freedom and free expression are under attack by a power structure in Washington populated with regulators who have never set foot inside a radio station or a television studio.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure what radio stations and television studios have to do with the internet.
Soon after this he made another bizarre statement. “The last thing we need, in my view, is the FCC serving as Internet traffic controller, and potentially running roughshod over local broadcasters who have been serving their communities with free content for decades.” Where do I even begin with the problems in this sentence? First of all, I, and I presume most people in the United States, don’t get my internet access from a “local broadcaster”. I get it from Time Warner Cable, which is a huge corporation based in New York City that made almost 19 billion dollars last year and provides internet access to over 9 million people. This is hardly a “local broadcaster”, and they’re not even the largest ISP in the US. Second, my internet access is not even remotely free. I pay $55 a month to access the internet. How is this “free content”? And third, it seems a little ridiculous to speak of these “local broadcasters” providing “free content for decades” when the internet has been widely available for less than 20 years.
Statements like these make Boehner seem hopelessly out of touch with the way the internet actually works. And if he doesn’t understand what the internet is or how it works, then how is he in any way qualified to even have an opinion about how it should or shouldn’t be regulated? And more to the point, how is he qualified to be in a position to shape the way that the internet is or isn’t regulated?
I shouldn’t ignore the flip side of the coin, though. There is a genuine reason to fear what the government might do if given too much power over the internet. And I would agree that the government telling people what they can and can’t do or say on the internet is potentially a much worse problem than ISPs throttling or outright blocking Netflix. But I would have a lot more confidence that John Boehner was really trying to do what’s best for the American people if he actually sounded like he knew what he was talking about. Instead, all his speech really did was give me another reason to be irritated with the Republican party. Good job, Mr. Speaker.