“I am the Key Master”: Net Neutrality and the Consumer
by Daniel J. Durand
Thanks to the internet, the massive amounts of data at our disposal have made information cheaper than dirt. At any moment a person can be viewing a recording of a favorite television show, communicating with long-lost friends and relatives, or checking their stock portfolio, perhaps all at once. The sheer volume of data available at the end of every Google search is phenomenal, and the convenience of viewing it is easily superior to going to the public library.
Right now, consumers are charged a fee to access the internet from one of hundreds of internet service providers, or ISPs, who host the servers on which the Internet's data is stored. The fees and level of service vary from provider to provider, forming a competitive market place where consumers can choose between one service or the other. Granted, there are flaws in the system, but generally the service works well if you can afford a decent connection, “decent” in this case meaning “not dial-up”.
At the time of this writing, three of the major companies that provide internet service in the United States are Earthlink, Verizon, and AT&T. All offer comparable internet service for monthly fees between 15 to 60 dollars a month. Verizon also offers a fiber-optic connection service for about 90 dollars a month. For those who don't know, fiber-optic cable is the Supreme-Overlord-Fonzie of all things electronic, the most advanced communications technology available today and by far the fastest connection available.
So, if you want internet, you pick a service provider in your area and give them a call. For a monthly fee, you have access to the internet and all its glory. For a larger monthly fee, you have better access. “Better” access means you either pay for more data that you are allowed to download in a given period, or a faster connection such as the aforementioned fiber-optic cable, or both. It works pretty much the same way as your cable package and phone bill, where more money equals more channels or more minutes and long-distance calling. A lot of companies are even starting to offer all three services in the same package deal.
That's where the radicals come in. “Net neutrality” is an equal-access ideology that has gained significant momentum in the last few years, to the point of becoming a journalistic buzz-word. Net neutrality says that everyone on the internet should pay the same reasonable price for internet service and receive the same fair access as everyone else. This includes 77-year-old Ramona from Ohio who runs a website comprised entirely of pictures of her eleven cats. It also means that Ramona has the same visibility on the net as, say, Kentucky Fried Chicken or Time Warner.
Net neutrality supporters also argue that larger companies like AT&T are trying to do the consumer harm by restricting their access to the internet. According to Save The Internet, a coalition of “million everyday people who have banded together with thousands of nonprofit organizations, businesses and bloggers to protect Internet freedom” (“Net Neutrality 101”), the larger ISP's want to create a new, faster internet, which they would charge through the nose for consumers to connect to. In their view, one day we might very well live in a world where the large ISPs will charge a premium for fast service. Those websites who can't afford to pay for the faster access will be left at a competitive disadvantage. Local restaurants, for example, would lose out in advertising ability to larger companies like McDonald's or Burger King simply because they can't afford the connection fees.
The idea behind net neutrality seems fair enough; after all, we have freedom of speech in this country, up to the point where it can be insulting. Why should the internet have more restrictions than other medium, such as the print industry? When one considers the oft-quoted misconception that “Ninety-percent of the internet is porn,” it can be difficult to fathom just how a regulatory body might begin to control such a channel. No one is in favor of censorship, and no one wants to have their freedoms restricted by a large corporation. The way the neutrality supporters talk, it feels like we're only a day away from cursing the name of “Big ISP” instead of “Big Oil,” and that gets people riled up.
However, there are some things that net neutrality fails to take into account. For one, it assumes that everyone already pays the same price for their internet access. As mentioned before, each ISP provides access for various prices, based on connection type and speed. If a customer wants to have awesome internet, they pay an awesome price. Fiber-optics are amazing, but in order to have a fiber-optic connection, the cable has to be strung out and maintained. That's not a cheap process, and the product is top-grade, meaning the service costs more to the consumer. The real point here is that we already pay a premium, just like with anything else.
Also, the “big corporations” are a bit difficult to see as the conspirators in this case. There are literally hundreds of internet service providers out there, each one with it's own data plan and fee. How are all of those companies, each one competing with the other, going to see eye-to-eye and work together on such a daunting project? It just seems a bit farfetched, especially when one considers that the biggest of the ISPs, Germany's Schlunde.de, holds only 3.77% of the market (“Biggest ISPs? The Answer May Surprise You”). That's ridiculously tiny, especially when you consider real monopolies like Microsoft, who control 90% of the consumer operating system market. If any one ISP were to try and charge too high of a premium, they would lose business to their competition. It would take a whole lot of teamwork to pull off the caper in question.
Another misconception that proponents of net neutrality fail to realize is that it actually doesn't require a lot of money to become well-known on the internet. A perfect example of this is Maddox, founder of The Best Page in the Universe. A satire site he created in 1998, he proudly reports on his website that, having not spent a single cent on advertising, his site receives more web traffic than Pepsi, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Subway, Burger King, Wendy's, and KFC(“How is it possible...”). It should be noted that The Best Page in the Universe is primarily about Maddox being a pirate, his manly escapades, and his gripes with modern society. While entertaining, the site is hardly as useful as Wikipedia, which is a non-profit and ranks number 7 on the list of Alexa's top 500 websites(“Alexa Top 500 Global Sites”).
What exactly we should call “equal access”? The United States ranks 28thin average internet speed when compared to other developed nations. We have a pathetic 5.1 mbps, (megabits per second) while South Korea, which ranks first, has a speed of 24 mbps(“US Ranks 28th...”).
The reason? We have more and more people logging in every day, and haven't put enough money into building new infrastructure. Imagine trying to squeeze the Pacific Ocean through a bendy straw, and you have a good idea of where we stand with the state of the American interwebs.
When put into those terms, it's hard to be upset at the conspiracy claims. At 5.1 megabits, who would complain if Verizon started offering faster service? While it may seem to be in the best interest of the corporations, isn't also their prerogative? If the company owns the network, they should be able to do with it whatever they see fit, provided it falls within legal constraints. Prices may be high, but the purpose of a firm is to increase profit(Miller 566). If the corporations raise their prices too high, consumers get flighty and stop buying expensive internet, per the law of demand (Miller 52). Eventually, if faster internet is a service people are willing to pay for, than more competition will enter the marketplace and prices will go down further.
If a person looks at the state of the industry as it is, it seems as though the consumer can only benefit. The service being provided is so ingrained into our society that demand will only increase, there is plenty of innovation to be made, and there is enough competition to keep prices fair. The technology is only going to get better. What's more, if it turns out there really is a conspiracy to restrict the internet, activist groups like Save the Internet will be there to save the day.
“ Alexa Top 500 Global Sites”. Alexa the Web Information Company. April 28th, 2011. <http://www.alexa.com/topsites>
“ Biggest ISPs? The Answer May Surprise You”. The Internet Patrol. April 28th, 2011. <http://www.theinternetpatrol.com/biggest-isps-the-answer-may-surprise-you/>
“ How is it possible that a guy with a small penis and a hairy back is more powerful than Pepsi on the Internet?” The Best Page in the Universe. April 28th, 2011. <http://www.thebestpageintheuniverse.net/c.cgi?u=owned>
Miller, Roger L. “Chapter 3: Demand and Supply”. Economics Today. Pearson Education, Inc., 2011. 52.
Miller, Roger L. “Chapter 22: Rents, Profits, and the Financial Environment of Business”. Economics Today. Pearson Education, Inc., 2011. 566.
“ Net Neutrality 101”. Save the Internet. April 28th, 2011. <http://www.savetheinternet.com/net-neutrality-101>
“ US ranks 28thin Internet connection speed: report”. Physorg.com. April 28th2011. <http://www.physorg.com/news170447728.html>