Net Neutrality Hypocracy: Preventing Competition by Internet Regulation

Here is our latest piece in Real Clear Policy

Most of the Internet giants are supportive of net neutrality, or open Internet, rules—companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Netflix. Net neutrality would supposedly protect the equality of traffic, ensuring that all content on the Internet is treated equally. The fear, so they claim, is that ISPs will one day slow down or speed up content based on the nature of that content—so that an ISP could potentially slow down Netflix services and provide faster services for its own video streaming offerings.

The problem with this, opponents say, is that treating all traffic equally doesn’t make sense because traffic is itself different.  Streaming an entire movie is very different from reading an email and the costs associated with both vary widely. ISPs invest millions in infrastructure for Internet services, and it costs millions more to deliver high bandwidth traffic. AT&T executive Jim Cicconi probably asked it best when he questioned who should really have to pay for this bandwidth heavy traffic?

These Internet giants supportive of net neutrality control vast swaths of Internet traffic. Google currently controls 67% of the search engine market; Netflix can on occasion account for 34% of Internet traffic during peak hours; and Facebook has over 1 billion members and has become a homepage of the Internet of sorts, deciding what articles are shown in a persons news feed; and Amazon controls an ecommerce empire with revenues of $74 billion in 2013. All of these companies have near monopolistic control over their markets, greatly influencing what people watch, read, learn and purchase.

It’s ironic, then, that these giants who run their empires with iron fists, are such vociferous proponents of net neutrality. Most of the algorithms that control what their users see are closely held trade secrets—no one knows how Google decides what makes it to the first few pages in search results, and no one knows anything about the algorithm that decides what makes it to Facebook’s news feed. There’s very little to stop Facebook and Google from deciding you shouldn’t see content from a certain content creator or Amazon from deciding you shouldn’t get access to certain books.

We’ve seen very blatant examples of this recently. Amazon, for one, has been in a feud with the book publisher, Hachette, for some time and as a result has made it very difficult for customers to purchase books published by Hachette. Facebook has tweaked their algorithm several times over the past few months, each time sending traffic one way or the other across the Internet. Google often does the same, most recently a few days ago, resulting in the highly respected site Metafilter seeing a 40% drop in traffic.

This really seems to be more about some major tech players losing their power as gatekeepers to commerce, information and market share, than it is about an “open Internet.”  It is more about protection than market competition.

Zack Christenson writes on digital tech issues for the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research institute.  For more information, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org 

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