Episode 119 - Neutral Net
Published November 4, 2014
The Internet. It's unleashed a flood of innovation, as well as putting the wealth of mankind's knowledge at our fingertips. From apps to websites, video services like Netflix to YouTube, podcasts, fan films, all of it is now available online. And for the most part, it's been a pretty level playing field. But the ISPs that connect most of us to the Internet have been trying to change that. The FCC is set to release some new rules for how the network itself is regulated. We're hoping that they'll choose to uphold the freedom and innovation that we've all come to expect by adhering to the principals of NET NEUTRALITY. This issue will affect all of us, and will decide what the Internet of the future looks like. Recorded 10/26/2014.
You can download the episode here.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Wikipedia on Net Neutrality in the United States
FCC OpenInternet website
Wikipedia entry for Timothy Wu, the guy who coined the term "net neutrality"
Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination, by Timothy Wu (SSRN Electronic Journal, 2003)
A Q&A With Tim Wu, Father of Net Neutrality, on What the FCC Should Do, by Amy Schatz (Re/Code, 10/7/2014)
Episode 43 - Breaking The Net... Again?!?, where we talked about Verizon winning a net neutrality court case against the FCC
Episode 66 - Endangered Internet, where we talked about the FCC's new "Internet Fastlanes" policy
Episode 6 - Kill the Internet?!?, where we talked about SOPA/PIPA
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #119. On the show, we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in under 30 minutes, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And on this episode, we wanted to take another look at the concept of network neutrality and also maybe touch on Comcast’s attempted merger with Time Warner. We first talked about net neutrality -- well, we talked about it a couple of times, but most recently in episode #66. So, it has been awhile. I think it is an issue that is worth bringing up again, and again, and again because it’s important. I think in our discussions before, we talked about it as somewhat an enabling issue in that the whole idea of being on the internet is what connects you to the larger world in the 21st century, and any of the issues that people care about are affected by it. Therefore, it kind of underpins all those other issues and really any issue you care about. So, for people that don’t know what net neutrality is, it’s really just the principle that connecting to the internet should be a connection to all of the services that are out on the internet, all of which should have access to the full bandwidth that your ISP is selling you without any kind of discrimination or any of those little games. Unfortunately, I think we’ve drifted far from that and I really think it’s time for the pendulum to swing back the other way.
MB: Well, I think you’re seeing too that any time, if you remember when SOPA and PIPA were brought up, and this whole thing with net neutrality, people get really, really pissed when you start trying to screw with the internet, which is, I think, a really good thing. You see a lot of these TV shows and things where they interview people on the street and they couldn’t spot President Obama if you showed them a picture and put his name under it, they couldn’t tell you who it is, but when you start screwing with the internet, that’s when people start really getting upset. You see a lot of that with these things, and I think that’s a good thing because keeping the internet free and open is probably the most important thing that we can do right now almost as a society. It’s very important. You look at a lot of other countries who try and regulate the internet and do all these other things, but people always figure out a way around those things and they’re figuring out how to get people together, and almost causing problems for the governments and stuff. But I think that’s important. We need to keep the internet free and open like that.
MJ: I 100% agree. I think the reality is that the internet is now a utility. It really is a connection to, I know you’ve said this before, the collective knowledge of the human race. It’s your connection to that network and to treat it as if it’s in any way a privilege or a service that you should be grateful to have, that’s gone out the window now. This is the 21st century, this stuff is important and as much as maybe not everyone in the world is connected yet, or as much as companies want to be able to profit off of it, or offer this or that service, really, it should be the equivalent of an information pipe that just connects you to that network, and then from there companies can take it to offering this or that email or this or that service, or whatever that is. I think anything that gets in the way of that is just outright bad for everyone, even if their short term interests don’t agree. I think a lot of the opposition in the industry that you see with net neutrality, and I’ve gotten into this a couple of times with people on the internet, or certainly my former employer, AT&T, has this view, that they should be allowed to customize their network. I think that just is so wrongheaded in the sense that it misses -- really the internet being that kind of dumb network, it increases in value exponentially when A) it stays dumb, so the network isn’t tell you how you can use it, it just does whatever you tell it to do, and B) connects everyone, because each additional connection makes it exponentially more valuable.
MB: Yeah, totally. No, I agree 100%. It’s like when AT&T used to, you know, when you would pay for 5 gigs of data, and they still do this and it still irritates me, and you’re one of the people who has to deal with this, is if I’m paying for 5 gigabytes of data per month, why shouldn’t I be able to use that data any way I want? Why shouldn’t I be able to use tethering? As long as I don’t go over that 5 gigs of data, why does AT&T care what I do with it? It’s the same with Comcast or even AT&T, or Verizon, or any of these high speed internet companies. Why do they care how I use my data if I’m only using my data? You shouldn’t care that I’m using it for Netflix. Having one large company pay another large company so that they can get their access, all you’re doing is, at that point, hurting the smaller guy. What if there’s a company out there that does what Netflix does, only they do it better and faster, and they have a better selection of movies or whatever? They’re never going to be able to get off the ground because they’re never going to be able to afford to pay Comcast all this additional money to get their product to get into that high speed internet lane. There shouldn’t be a high speed internet lane. The internet should just be open for everyone, and it should be 100% open. I think that’s always been the lure of the internet, is the fact that there has been no filter on it.
MJ: Well, they want to make it like cable.
MB: Oh, I know exactly what they want to do, but that’s not want anybody else wants, except for these large companies. Nobody else on the planet thinks that’s a good idea.
MJ: Yeah. Well, I think the core issue is that they’ve oversubscribed, basically. The reason they don’t want you to use all of your data the way that you want to use it is because then it would be obvious that they’ve sold more bandwidth than they have, and they don’t want to have to put the money into improving it. If you look at the money they put into improving their network, raising it up as they go -- as each of these companies has gotten bigger, that number has gone down, at least as a percentage of their profits. So, as they make more money, they’re putting less of that money into boosting up their network. Having worked in that industry, the term you hear, and I know I’ve mentioned this before, is ARPU, Average Revenue Per User, which in my opinion, is idiotic to base your industry on. You’re targeting basically the average customer. Not your good customers, just the customer who, “Eh, whatever,” pretty much. When you target service at that level, that “Eh, whatever,” this is what you get. You get bad service, you get bad short term decisions. Whereas if you target your best customer, the one who’s playing World of Warcraft in 60 FPS while downloading Blu-ray movies and also chatting with someone in North Africa, you get better service because they have to boost the quality of that network up, and that lists everybody. So, that is very much, and I hate to use a trickledown term, but that’s a rising tide that lifts all boats.
MB: This wouldn’t be an issue if I had six, or seven, or eight high speed internet providers to choose from. Most people have one and it’s a take it or leave it type of a situation. Where I live, there are two that I can choose from, Comcast and AT&T. Well, that’s like choosing between airplane food and hospital food. They both suck.
MJ: Prison food, yeah.
MB: I heard there were a couple of congressmen who said “We don’t need net neutrality because it’s a free market society and people can go to a different company.” That’s the whole issue -- you can’t go to a different company. There is no other company. You have one choice. When I first moved here, it was only Comcast. Now AT&T offers DSL. But before that, I couldn’t call up Comcast and be like “Hey, you can take your high speed internet and shove it, because I’ll just go to XYZ cable company” or whatever. I’m stuck with Comcast. There’s nothing I can do. It’s a monopoly and that’s the problem.
MJ: Well, I think they stopped just short of being a monopoly. In a lot of places, like you said, they’re duopolies. In some places, they are actually monopolies but they never quite hit the threshold to be considered a national monopoly. I think the problem is that certain industries just tend towards that monopoly effect, particularly utility industries. I think the reality is that the internet has crossed over into that utility territory. True, it’s not there yet for everyone. Like my great aunt, I think she really doesn’t even know how to use the internet particularly, and actually is probably a bit dangerous when she’s on it. But for most people in their day-to-day life, certainly anyone I would say under 50 at this point, really it’s essential. It should be essential. Granted, there are a few people who live off the grid or maybe live in places where it’s not as essential, but I don’t know about you, but for my daily life, I cannot live without it.
MB: Yeah. I hate to even bring this up, but it is my one fear, and we’ve talked about this before, is if you make it like an electric company or the gas company or whatever, then you’ve got government oversight, and we kind of all know that the government, whenever they get involved in something, they tend to screw it up. I’m worried that at some point some idiotic senator or congressman is going to say “Well, I don’t think we should have porn on the internet,” or “I don’t think we should have this or that on the internet.” We already saw it with SOPA and PIPA, how they were trying to regulate the internet and trying to basically screw it all up. I think if you make it into some kind of utility, then you’re going to give the government more power over it, and that’s what scares me. Now, the one thing that I think will save it is the fact that we’ve seen how angry people get and how up-in-arms they get when you try and screw with it, and I think don’t be that guy who tries to pass something like that. But I think it’s something to be at least somewhat leery of, just from the standpoint that “Do we really want the government involved in regulating the internet? Because once you let them dip a toe into something, they’re going to screw it up somehow.
MJ: Well, they’re already involved though. That’s the thing. The cable companies and the phone companies both are regulated industries, their lines are regulated, all of that is regulated. I think the question is are you going to regulate it in a way that actually recognizes that the internet is a utility, or are you going to continue letting them play the way that they are? We’ve already seen what happens -- they extort money from Netflix, they engage in all kinds of bad behavior. It’s not to say the government is a panacea by any means, because as you mentioned, it frequently doesn’t go right. But I think that the government is at least, in theory, accountable to the people and I think that if people stay involved and stay up on things, then that accountability has a chance to work. I would argue that that accountability right now in our political system is rather broken and that’s why government sucks so badly, and I would also say that government tends to work better when it’s more localized because it then tends to actually reflect real people’s concerns versus the company that has enough resources to lobby the centralized government to force everybody to go a certain way. Honestly though, sometimes that’s not all bad. Sometimes that actually does improve things for everyone. In terms of water quality and things like that, and some of the utility issues, I think government has actually been fairly successful. It’s just it could break over time. One of the comments I heard a lot of was you couldn’t point out a good phone network, in response to the whole idea of the internet being regulated under Title II. I would say Title II definitely needs to be rewritten and updated, like we were saying in the last episode about the old laws and new tech. It needs to be updated to take into account the new technology, but when that communications act was first enacted, America did end up with one of the best communication systems in the world, and it went on that way for decades. It got to a point where that stood in the way of what came next, but for several decades it actually was pretty damn good. So, I would say that is something we need on the internet before they make it into cable TV. The example I’ve used of future services that I would like to see are full sensory recordings of things. So, like if you were to basically do a telepresence into a robot body, you could actually get sense data or things like that. Or imagine recording diving out of an airplane, and having that be able to broadcast over the internet. If you think 1080p video is a heavy stream to have to deal with, or 4K video is a heavy stream to have to deal with, just wait until you have that kind of amount of data to deal with.
MB: My point was just it’s something to at least keep in the back of your mind, that it is a possibility. I hate having to beat SOPA and PIPA to death, because they technically are sort of dead -- I don’t think they’re ever really dead, but...
MJ: Now you’ve got TPP, so. Or son of TPP, or ACTA.
MB: So, my only fear is if you get the government too involved, they’re going to figure out a way to slip those things in there. Which is the lesser of two evils? Do you want companies screwing with the internet, or do you want the potential of the government screwing with the internet? The internet needs to stay free and open the way it is, and that’s the most important thing. So, however we get there, I don’t really care. There’s pluses and minuses to both ways definitely. As long as we get to net neutrality, I think that’s the most important thing.
MJ: Yeah, I would not disagree. Certainly, there’s a gazillion ways it could go wrong. It’s just of the two, I would say that the government is, in this case, the lesser of two evils just because they don’t have the profit incentive to… The problem is I think it’s a short term profit incentive, because in the long term for companies like AT&T and Comcast and Verizon, if they invest in their network, think how much they could make off services to the companies that would be providing, for example, the large sensory data or things like that. I was reading about a company that wants to provide remote control of drones on the moon, so people could sign on to a drone and explore around on the moon. Who knows what they could come up with. I don’t think we’re going to get any of that cool stuff if the companies are allowed to put their fast lanes in. I think that’s going to really curtail innovation.
MB: I agree. Having preferred internet status is never a good thing, because you’re going to stifle innovation. The little guy, the startup, the guy who has the great idea and is trying to work out of his garage is always going to be at a disadvantage. The problem with having these fast lanes and things is you’re stifling innovation, not letting the little guy who’s tinkering in his garage, who has a brilliant idea, those are the guys who are basically going to be shut out by the big companies who can’t afford to get their product into faster internet lanes and things. That, I think, is just going to ruin innovation on the internet. One of the best things about the internet is the fact that it’s always been a level playing field. If I want to start selling books from Matt’s Bookmart, I literally have just as much chance of making it as Amazon or anyone else because we’re on a level playing field. When you start introducing these fast lanes and things, then you’re not on a level playing field anymore, and that’s what’s going to ruin the internet.
MJ: And I would say that in an ideal world, that is actually the ideal role for government, is to set the conditions that keep the playing field level as much as possible.
MB: Yes, and then stay out of it.
MJ: Yeah, I agree with you 100%. They need to not get into any kind of censorship or things like that. The things that are crimes, they don’t need special laws around, they just need to do their job and actually prosecute those crimes. You don’t need a special law about child porn on the internet because child porn is already illegal, so. Anyway, I think it’s an important issue, obviously it’s one we come around to again and again. But I think that people need to get educated if they’re not already. They need to be involved and, like you said, because this stuff seems to come around again and again, like SOPA and PIPA and TPPA or ACTA or whatever they’re calling it now, they just need to get involved.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. You can find our show notes, including links from this episode, on our website at RobotOverlordz.FM. That’s it for this radio broadcasting. We would love to hear your thoughts on this episode in our forum, or you can review us on iTunes. We’re Robot Overlordz with a Z.
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.