Just say no to fake Net neutrality

"Paid prioritization" could secure today's online giants a spot in the fast lane while leaving others to fight over the scraps, writes Free Press policy leader S. Derek Turner.

S. Derek Turner
S. Derek Turner manages Free Press' policy team in Washington, D.C. He has written about a wide range of media and technology issues, and he regularly testifies before Congress and the FCC. He holds a master's degree from the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley.
S. Derek Turner
5 min read

Editors' note: This is a guest column. See S. Derek Turner's bio below.

The debate in Washington over Net neutrality--the fundamental principle that keeps the Internet open and free from discrimination--is coming to a head. That means that the wheeling and dealing is under way, and consumers need to watch out.

There are currently closed-door meetings taking place between phone and cable behemoths, and the biggest Internet companies, to craft a "compromise" deal that could carve up the Internet for them and leave consumers and smaller competitors behind. If the fix is in, it won't be long before they launch a PR campaign presenting this scheme as some kind of middle ground far from the "radical fringe." But buyer beware: This could be fake Net neutrality.

Real Net neutrality is when phone and cable companies cannot pick winners and losers on the Internet. Real Net neutrality is when new innovators with good ideas have an equal chance at competing against Google and Yahoo because they don't have to pay ISPs for preferential treatment.

But what's being floated in Washington, dubbed "paid prioritization," is fake Net neutrality. And a slightly more sanitized version of this known as "managed services" could secure today's online giants a spot in the fast lane, while everyone else is left fighting over the scraps.

What's in it for the big guys? If they can't kill Net neutrality outright, the dominant phone and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast still want to be able to favor their own video, voice, and text content, protecting themselves from the forces of competition and reducing their need to make investments in capacity expansions.

But an online giant like Amazon.com or Google might be persuaded to go along because it can afford priority treatment for its content at the expense of any future start-up competitors.

This fake Net neutrality will be a huge loss for consumers and online entrepreneurs, who will have to stand by and watch as these industry giants turn the vibrant marketplace that is the open Internet into something that looks more like cable TV, where consumers face high prices and few choices.

The beauty of the open Internet is any user's unfettered access to the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas found online. While everyone pays for access, no one is forced to pay for the privilege of reaching a particular broadband access provider's subscribers. But the carriers want to change this by introducing "paid prioritization."

When companies choose to pay for not just access to the Internet, but for the right to give their content priority over their competitors, it tilts the playing field online against entrepreneurs and consumers, and towards the companies that can afford to buy market power.

Think about a crowded room of people trying to exit through a single narrow door. Some people in the room will be willing to pay to jump to the front of the line so they can get through the door quickly, but letting those people cut the line slows down everyone else.

"Paid prioritization" sounds like a reasonable solution, if you're talking about packages: You sending something overnight with UPS doesn't stop my mail from getting delivered. But that's not how the Internet works: The routing of Internet Protocol data is a zero-sum game. If a router prioritizes one set of bits, by definition, it is at the expense of all other bits.

Think about a crowded room of people trying to exit through a single narrow door. Some people in the room will be willing to pay to jump to the front of the line so they can get through the door quickly, but letting those people cut the line slows down everyone else.

The better solution is making the door big enough to fit everyone through--but expanding capacity undermines the entire business case for paid prioritization. If the door is large enough that everyone can leave the room as quickly as they can walk to the exit, then no one will be willing to pay to cut to the front of the line.

Prioritization is only needed when a network is experiencing congestion. So the only reason to pay for preferential treatment is if congestion is the norm. That gives the Internet service providers an incentive to encourage congestion. The only winners in such a world are the network operators and the largest online companies whose pockets are deep enough to pay for preferential treatment that ensures that their competitors never get a fighting chance.

Think back to the online world in the early part of the decade. RealNetworks' RealPlayer application was the go-to video client. The company had plenty of resources to pay ISPs for preferential treatment, but it couldn't do so because of the de facto Net neutrality regulatory regime in place at the time.

But if it could have locked in preferential treatment, it would have given ISPs the incentive to reduce capacity out of fear of devaluing the paid-priority service. It would have also meant that a tiny little start-up down the road called YouTube would have, from the get-go, been at an insurmountable competitive disadvantage.

Some have suggested that ISPs be allowed to devote all future additional capacity to a segmented "pipe" specifically for paid priority content. In theory, these "managed services" would not harm content on the open Internet because they would essentially be traveling down separate roads. But for such a scheme to work, the quality differential between the open Internet and the closed, managed-service Internet would have to be so great that content companies would be willing to pay for this specialized treatment.

The inevitable result would be the stagnation of investment in the open Internet--freezing the public Internet where it is today, with all new investment flowing to the closed pipes. If policymakers don't put in place safeguards to ensure robust development of the open Internet, we would be allowing the few companies that can afford it to buy admission access to a new fast lane, while newcomers to the online marketplace would be stuck within the constraints of the existing platform.

That's not real Net neutrality. It's not what millions of Internet users from all walks of life and across the political spectrum have been fighting for. And it's certainly not what President Obama and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski promised to deliver.

In policymaking, we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but we also can't lose sight of values worth preserving. For those who care about preserving the Internet as a level playing field, this means establishing real Net neutrality--clear and unambiguous rules that keep the Internet free and open, not just for large companies with deep pockets able to pay for priority, but for consumers, innovators and entrepreneurs too.

There is real Net neutrality. There is fake Net neutrality. Accept no substitutes.