Dragons in the Algorithm
Adventures in Programming
by Michael Chermside

My Letter to the FCC on Net Neutrality

FCC Logo - a trademark of the FCC. Used here under fair use to illustrate the fact that I am discussing communications with the FCC. The seal does not indicate that anything about this post was endorsed by the FCC.

Today is the deadline for providing public comment to the FCC on whether to classify broadband communications under Title II -- basically, whether or not to enforce Net Neutrality in a way that works. The following is the letter that I submitted (by email, since the FCC's website for posting comments was not functional):

To FCC regulators:

In relation to proceeding 14-28, I would like to express my support for regulating broadband (including wireless internet providers) under Title II (as a “common carrier”) to enable the enforcement of "net neutrality".

By "net neutrality" I mean the principle that the delivering of internet communications should be independent of which particular entity (application or individual) is transmitting it. In other words, an internet carrier (whether broadband or traditional, wired or wireless) should not be able to block traffic to one of their customers simply because it comes from certain applications. Nor should they be able to degrade service, by offering a different speed or a different error rate for different endpoints their customers might try to reach. Regulation under Title II could achieve this.

One can imagine many ways that such discrimination could be abused. The most egregious would be if a major provider like Comcast were to interfere in the democratic process by blocking (or just degrading) access to the donation pages for certain politicians -- and I think we can all agree that this is unlikely. Subtler in effect but similar in kind would be for a major player like Verizon Wireless to provide greater bandwidth (thus greater speed) for one company (Amazon.com, perhaps) rather than another (walmart.com). In this hypothetical situation Verizon might engage in this behavior because of direct kickbacks (payments) from Amazon, or as a threat to persuade Walmart to sign an unrelated contract with them. This hypothetical is far more plausible, but would be, in many ways, just as harmful. As a final example, some major internet providers such as Comcast or Verizon might intentionally manage their network so as to reduce bandwidth from certain sites their customers connect to (Netflix, perhaps) in order to demand that this third party (not the ISP's customer) pay them additional amounts -- this example is no mere hypothetical, it has HAPPENED ALREADY.

Perhaps none of this would be necessary if there were hundreds of small providers of broadband internet service giving each customer the choice of 5, 10, or more providers. In such a situation market forces might allow consumers to select from providers and choose those that did not degrade service for their favorite destinations. But that is not the world that we live in. The FCC's own measurements (December 2013) show that two thirds of customers had access to 2 or fewer wireline broadband providers, over a quarter have only a single provider. Providing network connectivity is a natural monopoly because of the cost of placing wires (or wireless stations) and the network effects of doing so heavily in a certain location.

Imagine if, 15 years ago, internet providers had charged a "reasonable" fee for transmitting video over broadband. This would have been eminently reasonable, given that most broadband providers at that time were (and still are) in the business of selling such a service ("cable television"). Imagine that their "reasonable" rates were just 1 tenth the consumer cost of their own offerings (1 tenth the cost of a normal customer's cable bill) -- that would have seemed quite reasonable to any regulator. But under such an environment, YouTube could never have begun. YouTube introduced a completely new business model -- no one had ever offered free hosting and viewing of small customer-created clips of video. Beforehand, no one could have known whether that model would have succeeded or failed, but without net neutrality it could never even have been tried. And without YouTube, we would not have things like Khan Academy and hundreds of other projects to provide training videos on every subject.

YouTube is not the last great invention; there will be new innovators in the future who will create new industries that spur our economy and benefit all of society. And although I do not know what these innovations will be, I can say with confidence that these new industries will make use of the internet. But they will only be able to do so if you impose regulations now that enforce a policy of net neutrality; if you do not, then the next YouTube will simply not occur.

Please take this advice into consideration in your rulemaking.

Michael Chermside
2936 Morris Rd
Ardmore, PA 19003

Posted Tue 15 July 2014 by mcherm in Politics, Technology