I went looking for melodrama, defamation of character and a complete lack of courtesy; I found it by asking people on opposite sides of the Net Neutrality debate to comment on each other’s opinions. Some believe the internet will be destroyed by Net Neutrality repeal (apocalyptic descriptions are common), and see repeal supporters as unprincipled at best. In contrast, Net Neutrality opponents see it as a perfect example of regulatory capture by well-financed content creators and technology companies at the expense of internet service providers (ISPs) and consumers. As law professor Gus Hurwitz stated in a Nov 2017 Washington Post op-ed, “the policy discussion has broken down into pure tribalism. I don’t think there’s room or patience left for serious policy discussion in this area, even among serious people”.

With repeal likely to take effect in June and emotions running high, it makes sense to step back and create a list of things to watch for. In other words, if Net Neutrality supporters are right, some combination of the following would regularly occur following repeal. If they don’t occur, maybe some fears will have been misplaced. There’s also a chance that repeal doesn’t even last long enough for us to find out; this would probably be one of the first policies reversed by a future Democratic administration.

  • Will ISPs prioritize their own content or applications, by either throttling (slowing down) or restricting access to competitor content/applications?
  • Will ISPs offer prioritization services that convey speed advantages to established content providers able and willing to pay? If so, could the repeal lower the pace of innovation and stifle start-ups?
  • Will ISPs restrict content based on political or social views, or will the end result of repeal restrict the breadth of political debate in some other way?
  • Will ISPs restrict content based on political or social views, or will the end result of repeal restrict the breadth of political debate in some other way?

The stakes are high, since the internet has been a key driver of growth and consumer welfare for the last 20 years. For more information, this PDF outlines common arguments for each side of the argument so you can decide for yourself. My sense is that most of these fears are misplaced, but only time will tell if that’s the case.

In 2014, John Oliver aired one of his hilarious segments on alleged corporate malfeasance, this time, on the decision by Comcast to throttle Netflix programming. But did Comcast really do that? Probably not, at least according to most post-mortems we have seen. Here’s what happened. Netflix bandwidth requirements were soaring, and paid “transit providers” like Cogent to get their content onto ISP networks. Cogent had access to ISP networks, but subject to bandwidth limits. Netflix-related congestion grew on Cogent’s network, causing Cogent’s transit with Comcast to become a bottleneck. Cogent, one of Netflix’s own paid transit providers, prioritized other customers over Netflix on its network; Comcast was not part of this decision, but got blamed for it anyway. As a possible example of regulatory capture, Netflix’s CEO reportedly used this situation to argue in favor of increased ISP regulation and free access to ISP networks. No retraction from John Oliver to date, as far as we can tell.