Net Neutrality: Obamacare for the Internet?

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Fox News is in a tizzy over net neutrality. (This topic has been covered extensively in the technology press; see the archive at RealClearTechnology.) In a nutshell, net neutralityrequires internet service providers (ISPs, such as Comcast, Cox, and Verizon) to treat all data equally. An ISP would not be allowed to commit high-tech acts of extortion by, for instance, threatening websites with slower internet speeds unless they fork over extra cash.

Unfortunately, this is not merely hypothetical. An epic battle, described by The Oatmeal in entertaining comic book format, between Comcast and Netflix has shown how powerful ISPs can bully websites. Briefly, Netflix customers, who stream movies online, make up a large portion of internet traffic. So, Comcast decided to slow down Netflix users’ internet speeds unless Netflix paid them a lot of money. (See chart.)

Credit: The Oatmeal via Washington Post/Netflix

If you are a Netflix customer, having your movies stream more slowly because Comcast doesn’t get along with Netflix hardly seems fair. If you aren’t a Netflix customer, keep in mind that Comcast could choose to throttle whatever other websites it doesn’t like. Net neutrality is meant to prevent that.

Enter Fox News. Special Report, which is quite frankly one of the better political news shows on television, presented a very biased report by correspondent Peter Doocy. The tone of the report was largely conspiratorial. Mr. Doocy bizarrely compared net neutrality to “Obamacare” — even going so far as to rechristen it “Obamanet” — and claimed without any evidence that net neutrality will “slow down the internet.” (See video.) Notably, the report does not even mention the apocalyptic battle between Comcast and Netflix.

Then, in a follow-up report (video), Mr. Doocy says: “If the internet is regulated like a road or a utility, people will notice. First, ‘slower broadband,’ then ‘less investment,’ which means ‘fewer broadband choices’ — that’s according to critics of the plan — using similar rules in Europe as a model.”

Mr. Doocy is implying that over-regulation has caused those silly Europeans to have slower internet connections than Americans. But, that is demonstrably untrue. As reported in Xconomy, Akamai, a cloud services provider, ranks the U.S. #10 in the world for internet speed. Who beats us? A lot of European countries: Ireland (#9), Latvia (#8), Sweden (#7), Czech Republic (#6), Switzerland (#5), and Netherlands (#3). South Korea, at #1, continues to humiliate everybody else.

Furthermore, Mr. Doocy’s claim that net neutrality will lead to “fewer broadband choices” is dubious. Most Americans already have little choice in ISP. Quartz reported on a study by Softbank, a Japanese telecom, that says 67% of Americans have two or fewer ISPs (providing at least 10 Mbps download speed) from which to choose. A solid 30% have access to either one or zero ISPs. For all practical purposes, when it comes to internet service, most Americans are living under a de facto state of monopoly or duopoly. Even with increased regulation, it is difficult to see how net neutrality rules could make that worse.

The Fox News segment is irritating for two additional reasons. First, the network appears, as a matter of default, to oppose any and all of President Obama’s policies, regardless of their merit. The technology community is in near unanimous support of net neutrality. Second, information on net neutrality is rather easy to find. Yet, it is as if Mr. Doocy did almost no research whatsoever before producing his report.

Ideological affiliations aside, Americans simply deserve better journalism than that. For a much better explanation of net neutrality, see the following WSJ video: