Net Neutrality Is Gone. Did You Even Notice?
Net neutrality was repealed over six months ago. But if no one had told you, would you have even noticed?
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed Net Neutrality in 2015, which regulated the Internet under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. The rules were intended to ensure that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would treat Internet traffic the same, regardless of which website it came from. But in June 2018, the FCC repealed those rules. And while many neutrality advocates predicted disaster, since repeal, the Internet has only improved. Now NBC is reporting that Democrats in Congress will likely push for a net neutrality law in 2019. Their fixation on regulating the Internet is misplaced. The Internet keeps getting better, faster, and more affordable — and it will continue to do so without net neutrality.
Net neutrality advocates have long claimed that ISPs would take advantage of repeal to push users into slow lanes. Save the Internet, a coalition of organizations dedicated to preserving net neutrality, warned that, “Without net neutrality, cable and phone companies could carve the internet into fast and slow lanes.” But Internet speeds in 2018 actually rose by 35.8 percent. Rather than shoving users into a slow lane, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) upgraded everyone’s lane.
And what about those dire predictions that without net neutrality, ISPs would throttle content? The Electronic Freedom Frontier (EFF), the nonprofit perhaps most associated with the fight to restore net neutrality, primarily points to one example from 2018. Verizon, in the middle of a state emergency, throttled the data of the Santa Clara Fire Department. Advocates allege that Verizon took advantage of the emergency to push the fire department onto a more expensive data plan. And if that were the whole story, it might indeed justify regulation. But Verizon has a clear policy of removing data speed restrictions in emergency situations so that emergency responders have access to whatever data they need. The customer support representative dealing with the Santa Clara Fire Department either ignored or wasn’t aware of these rules. This isn’t a textbook case for restoring net neutrality, it’s just a customer service mistake.
The EFF’s justification for ISPs’ good behavior is that ISPs are scared of the prospect of regulation, so they haven’t enacted their evil master plan yet. That’s plausible. But then it begs the question of why the Internet became faster in 2018.
Net Neutrality advocates are missing a key piece of the puzzle: consumers. It explains why the post-neutrality Internet improved, and it’s the same reason that the Internet delivered faster speeds, better data, and a playing field that advantaged small businesses for decades before net neutrality.
Consumers are the key regulators of the Internet. We vote with our choices and our wallets. That means that ISPs are unlikely to block content to services we like, because we would stop paying them and flock to a competitor. If Comcast decided to throttle access to YouTube, does anyone really think their customers wouldn’t leave them for a competitor like T-Mobile or Sprint? Even if Comcast tried to throttle a smaller business that fewer consumers relied on, consumers are so opposed to the idea of throttling that the negative publicity would make it a losing proposition for the ISP.
This also explains why ISPs continued to upgrade speed instead of pushing users into the oft-feared slow lane, even when the latter would have been legal. It’s simply not profitable to anger your user base. Instead, ISPs have waged a fierce war to increase speeds more than their competitors. In the past couple of decades, we’ve gone from texting to Facetime and from looking at pixelated images to streaming HD movies. This increased speed has been enabled by ISPs because it’s been demanded by consumers. Verizon knows that if T-Mobile increases its speeds, and Verizon doesn’t follow suit, it will lose market share as customers switch to the faster provider.
Big brands are also risk-averse, especially in the age of online boycotts. That’s why Comcast’s brief foray into throttling content ended as soon as their users got wind. In 2007, investigations by the Associated Press confirmed that Comcast was throttling or even blocking file-sharing applications like BitTorrent. Comcast’s behavior prompted a fierce backlash, with negative coverage in the New York Times and Cnet, and even a lawsuit by consumers. The ISP promptly reversed course and announced that they would work with BitTorrent to eliminate throttling.
Consumers stood up for themselves, and Comcast blinked.
Net neutrality advocates say that we need to restore neutrality this year because we can’t trust big tech companies. They’re partly right — there’s nothing inherently virtuous about ISPs, and Comcast will do whatever it thinks it can get away with. But in a competitive market, that’s not very much, because the consumer is king. We don’t need to trust big tech. We just need to trust consumers.
Julian Adorney is a Tech Policy Fellow for Young Voices. He has written for National Review Online, Arc Digital, and The Federalist. He blogs at The Empathetic Libertarian.