Unpopular Net Neutrality Opinions

Net neutrality has benefits, and regulation has a role in ensuring its continuing existence, but there are several problems inherent in FCC telecom policy and the debate about net neutrality.

History

The new FCC chair (and Trump appointee) Ajit Pai has proposed reclassifying internet service providers as not “common carriers” under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, thus reducing the available regulatory options for the FCC.

Net neutrality is the concept that all internet traffic should be treated identically by Internet Service Providers (like cable companies) or governments regardless of content, protocol, users, destination, sources, etc. It means that loading a webpage from this blog would not cost you more than loading a webpage from a large company, assuming the content size is similar.

The FCC has broadly promoted net neutrality in the past. Around 2008, the FCC blocked Comcast from slowing the speed of its users who were utilizing BitTorrent to download videos. Comcast appealed and won, with an appellate court ruling that the FCC did not have the anciliatory jurisdiction over Comcast’s network (Comcast v FCC). The FCC next tried to issue an Open Internet Order in 2010, but in Verizon v FCC, that order was largely vacated, as the same appellate court ruled that the FCC could not regulate ISPs unless it classified them as common carriers under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. In 2015, the FCC classified ISPs as common carriers under Title II and enforced net neutrality rules.

Problems with Title II

A big problem with Title II is that it was written in 1934, 21 years before Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, was born. In fact, the vast majority of Title II is so useless that when Tom Wheeler proposed ISPs be classified as common carrier, he said that of the 61 Title II sections, the FCC would forebear from applying the entire title except six sections (201, 202, 208, 222, 254, and 255).

One question I cannot answer without more specific legal expertise is whether Wheeler’s rule only allows the application of those sections, or if in the future the FCC can unilaterally decide to apply other sections of Title II, now that ISPs are seen as common carriers. For example, Section 224 of Title II relates to pole attachments. Can the future FCC regulate broadband providers’ pole attachments if they wanted to under Wheeler’s rule? If not, they can certainly write a new rule that applies all of Title II by a vote of the commission.

Perhaps a better solution would be for Congress to pass a new law allowing the FCC to regulate net neutrality, but bar the FCC from regulating ISPs under Title II otherwise. This would narrow the FCC’s focus officially to what consumers care about. Of course, that would require Congress to actually act correctly, which I don’t have much faith in.

Is Title II regulation overwhelming and innovation killing? Ajit Pai has argued so. The New York Times editorial board disagrees, but their argument seems quite lacking.  They dismiss Pai’s claim that broadband capital investment declined since Title II classification as “alternative facts”, but a simple Google search reveals why they found numbers that conflict with Pai. The source, the Free State Foundation, calculated a trend line of broadband capital expenditures since 2003. They calculated the expected expenditures after the Title II regulation as compared with the actual. So while capital expenditures actually increased after the regulation, they increased less than the trend line indicates they should have.

Is it misleading for Pai to say capital expenditures decreased? Yes, or at the very least it’s imprecise. Is it misleading for Title II proponents to say there has been no effect? Probably, although trend lines are tricky. Additionally, the Times argues that the pattern of increased consolidation in the telecoms industry is a symptom of a healthy economic sector. This is a non sequitur. Mergers and acquisitions could be symptoms of profitable or unprofitable companies, depending on who is buying who, but ultimately to me it seems more indicative that economies of scale exist. One possible explanation for recent increase in economies of scale could be an increased regulatory burden. I don’t know if that’s the case, but to suggest that Charter’s purchase of Time Warner is a symptom of a healthy telecoms sector is the Times projecting their own political views onto market actions.

Problems with Net Neutrality

Ajit Pai has argued (in this Reason interview) that ISPs were not favoring some internet traffic over others. This seems incorrect. Comcast v. FCC was specifically about Comcast reducing the speed of some types of traffic. John Oliver points out that Google Wallet was not allowed to function on phones on the networks of AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint since it competed with a joint electronic wallet venture of those companies. On the other hand, Google Wallet still out-competed the networks’ own payment system despite being banned on those platforms. Consumer response was so positive on other networks that the consumers demanded it on AT&T and Verizon. Eventually the joint venture folded and got absorbed by Google Wallet/Android Pay.

Moreover, a few phone networks have run afoul of net neutrality rules by giving consumers free data for certain services, e.g. T-Mobile allowing streaming music to not count against a customers’ data cap. If the service provided by the content producer is so profitable that it can afford to pay for its own bandwidth, is it wrong to give that bandwidth to customers free of charge?

The economics here is complicated. In a perfectly competitive market, content producers could only charge for the marginal cost of producing more content while ISPs could only charge the marginal cost of additional bandwidth. Consumers would pay each company for their respective consumption of their products.

But we don’t have a competitive market, either for content producers (only HBO has Game of Thrones, only Netflix has Stranger Things) and especially not for ISPs. Since cable ISPs are state granted monopolies, there is a solid argument for regulating them, as they have leverage over content producers. That argument does disappear though when there is competition, such as there is for wireless broadband.

It is also worth pointing out that the importance of “neutrality” towards content is only narrowly valid. For example, bandwidth at certain times is more valuable. The Economist has suggested electric power be charged at different rates when used at different times. Similar arguments could be used for internet usage. It is also undeniable that some internet traffic really is more important, and consumers would be willing to pay more to have their bank notifications or business calls come through faster than YouTube videos, which they might be ok with allowing to buffer. Certainly we would want consumers making this decision and not ISPs, especially when there is little ISP competition for most end users. Additionally, such prioritization could be done by software on the consumer/LAN side of the router, and ISPs should likely just be dumb pipes that deliver what we tell them to.

Finally, we should be cautious about locking in rules even if they make sense today. Markets change over time, and there is a possibility that past rules will restrict innovation in the future. Since competition itself can defend against bad ISP behavior (perhaps even better than the FCC), having the FCC focus on increasing competition seems at least as vital as net neutrality. Interestingly, this is what Ajit Pai has argued for (see Reason interview above).

Conclusion

Today it seems likely that a policy of net neutrality by cable ISPs is more beneficial than not. It also seems likely that to protect that idea today, some form of regulation is needed on cable companies that are state granted monopolies in a given area. Such regulation is not as clearly necessary in wireless providers, and we should always be reviewing the importance of FCC regulations in order to avoid a curtailment of innovation. Additionally, any regulation should come from new Congressional legislation, not a law written 80 years ago. However, the benefits of net neutrality should not be taken as given. Variations in the consumer value of content priority as well as bandwidth scarcity during peak hours are perfectly acceptable ways to prioritize internet traffic. The problem arises when monopoly ISPs are doing the prioritizing rather than consumers.

 


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Links 2017-1-12

As we approach the time when free trade is the heretical advice rather than the obvious logical one, it’s time to brush up on our free trade arguments. Here’s an interesting one: would you ban new technology to save the jobs tied to the technology it replaces? Would you ban light bulbs to save candlemakers? Cars to save horsebreeders? It’s a ridiculous proposition to freeze the economy at a certain point in time. Well, there’s no economic difference between new technology and free trade. In fact, we can treat international trade as a fancy machine where we send corn away on a boat and the machine turns the corn into cars.  

And speaking of free trade, this is the economic modeling for why a tariff is unequivocally inefficient. One of the impacts of a tariff, by the way, is an increase in the market price of a good. Anyone saying that a tariff won’t have negative effects on consumers is just plain wrong.

The excellent open source encrypted messaging app Signal is so useful, it has to avoid having its application servers blacklisted by oppressive regimes. It uses a workaround of having encrypted connections through content delivery network, in this case, Google itself. Moxie Marlinspike, the creater of Signal says “Eventually disabling Signal starts to resemble disabling the internet.”

One of the biggest problems with Trump I pointed out last year was the total unknown of his policies. He keeps changing his mind on almost every issue, and when he does speak, he wanders aimlessly, using simplified language that is more blunt and less precise. Fitting right into this pattern, Trump has taken to Twitter for much of his communication, even since winning the election. Twitter is a short and imprecise tool for communication, and this New York Times article shows just how much uncertainty Trump creates with his tweets.

Related: Bill Perry is terrified of increased nuclear proliferation. The article is a little alarmist, but it’s worth remembering that nuclear war was a real threat just 30 years ago. It should not be taken for granted that nuclear war will never occur, and Trump seems the most likely of the post-Soviet presidents to get involved in a confrontation with a major nuclear power.

Scott Alexander reveals his ideal cabinet (and top advisers) if he were president. It’s not only remarkably better than Trump’s, it’s probably better than any cabinet and appointees we’ve ever had (Bernie Sanders notwithstanding). Highlights include: Alex Tabarrok as head of the FDA, Scott Sumner as Chairman of the Fed, Charles Murray as welfar czar, Peter Thiel as Commerce Secretary, and Elon Musk as both Secretary of Transportation and Energy.

Speaking of cabinets, George Will details just how out of touch soon-to-be-Attorney General Jeff Sessions is, recounting his 2015 defense of unlimited civil asset forfeiture, a procedure by which the government takes cash and property from civilians who have been convicted of no crime and therefore have no recourse or due process protections. Don’t buy into the story that all of Trump’s appointees are horrific and terrifying; there is a gradient of his cabinet appointments depending on their authoritarian tendencies and the importance of their department, and unfortunately Jeff Sessions as Attorney General is by far the most concerning.

Missed this earlier last year, and worth keeping in mind as BuzzFeed gets hammered this week over their publishing of an unverified dossier: apparently the FBI already has daily aerial surveillance flights over American cities. These seem to be for general investigative use, not vital national security issues: “But most of these government planes took the weekends off. The BuzzFeed News analysis found that surveillance flight time dropped more than 70% on Saturdays, Sundays, and federal holidays.” 

Speaking of BuzzFeed and the crisis of “fake news”, which itself may not even be anything compared the crisis of facts and truth itself, Nathan Robinson has an excellent take on the matter (very long read). With the lack of facts in the election, the media and Trump’s critics generally have to be twice as careful to rebuild trust in the very concept that objective truth exists and can be discussed in a political context.

Government regulations have hidden, unexpected costs. These regulations hurt people regardless of their political affiliations, as a Berkeley professor found out when trying to evict a tenant that refused to pay rent. California’s rather insane tenant laws mean that serial rent-cheaters can go from place to place staying rent free for months at a time.

I’ve often thought about the right ordering of presidents from best to worst, taking into account a libertarian, liberty-promoting approach. One difficulty is the non-comparability of presidents separated by centuries. However, this blog post from 2009 actually does a nice job of scoring the presidencies. I don’t agree with each one, but it’s a rough categorization that makes sense. It even gave me an additional appreciation for Ulysses Grant, who I figured was mostly president by the luck of being the general in charge when his army won the Civil War. Other highlights include William Henry Harrison scoring 11th, thus beating over three quarters of the competition despite only being in office for a month. I feel like I could have found more worse things on Andrew Jackson, and in general I feel like I agreed with the list more the closer I got the end.

Jeffrey Tucker at FEE has a nice article about the difference between spreading ideas and actual economic production of goods. His thesis is that we have much less control over the developing of ideas than we do of developing normal rivalrous goods. And since libertarians are pretty solid at grasping the idea that the production of goods cannot be controlled from the top down, we should also acknowledge that top-down approaches to developing ideas are even more preposterous, especially in the digital age of decentralized information. I’ve thought about this a fair amount considering I like I blogging but I’m well aware few people read this blog. The simplest way to restate Tucker’s point is that you have to have good ideas more than good distribution. I don’t know if that’s an accurate take, but certainly good ideas are the single most important part of spreading your ideas.

There’s a saying on the internet that “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch”. The 2016 election is excellent demonstration of just how poorly democracy can fail, but what our all alternatives. How about Futarchy? This is Robin Hanson’s idea to improve public policy: “In futarchy, democracy would continue to say what we want, but betting markets would now say how to get it. That is, elected representatives would formally define and manage an after-the-fact measurement of national welfare, while market speculators would say which policies they expect to raise national welfare.” Let’s hold a referendum on it; those seem to work out.

Bitcoin has been on the rise in recent months. So have other cryptocurrencies. But rather than focus just the price of the cryptocurrency, why not look at the total market valuation of those currencies? Sure, you might have heard that Bitcoin was up to $1000 again recently, but did you know that its total market cap is ~$13 billion? At the very peak of the Bitcoin bubble in 2013, all Bitcoins together were valued around $13 billion, but only for a matter of days. This time Bitcoin has kept that valuation for over 3 weeks. With more markets and availability, Bitcoin is becoming a real alternative for people whose national currencies have failed them. 

Postlibertarian throwback: When Capitalism and the Internet Make Food Better. A reminder that the despite the ongoing horrors of government we are witnessing, the market is still busy providing better products and cheaper prices.


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