Many principles guide how I live life. For example, to avoid causing traffic congestion, I pull into the slow lane when I am not overtaking another car. I stand on the side of the escalator where other people stand, so anyone wanting to walk up can do so without obstruction. I do not throw hotel towels on the floor unless they need replacing, and I hold the door open if somebody is following close behind. Some people are selfish, and never adhere to these principles, which annoys me. But as much as I believe and follow these principles, I do not think they should be laws, and it would be a bad idea to punish people for not following them. Sometimes there will need to be exceptions. If we can agree that queueing is generally a good principle, but sometimes we should pull the car to one side to allow an ambulance to take priority, then why do people argue over net neutrality? Why must the internet be exclusively run as an ordered undifferentiated queue, without permitting any exceptions?
Net neutrality started as a common sense approach to queueing, where the first in line was the first to be served. It is important to keep in mind that the original manifestation of net neutrality had nothing to do with money. The principle of net neutrality originated at a time when nobody had worked out how to monetize the internet. It is only recently that people have insisted this principle is about consistent pricing, even if that means nothing can be given for free over the internet, and even though the principle of net neutrality predates the technical capacity to charge according to the traffic carried.
Since the principle of net neutrality was first formulated, some people have not just enshrined it in written law. They have elevated it to the status of holy scripture. According to them, no exception to net neutrality can ever be allowed, for fear censorship will prevail, the economy will collapse, and the sky will fall on our heads. According to them, giving something for free is prejudicial to anyone who wants to be paid for what they supply. They are right, of course. But that never stopped us before. Which society banned charity, on the basis it hurts the interests of those seeking profit? But thanks to the internet, we now have a global society that wishes to prohibit businesses from giving stuff away, because of the way this would distort capitalist markets! And, coincidentally, many of the supporters of net neutrality also approve of increased government control of prices, and government ownership of communications infrastructure… even though some might say these lead to much more severe distortions.
I live by principles, but the principle of fairness is not one I spend a lot of time worrying about, because it is so easily warped and rendered meaningless. Giving priority to some traffic is unfair to the traffic which is delayed as a consequence. But sometimes we let people cut in line, and I have often been overtaken by public buses that drive in lanes that they use exclusively. When deviations are allowed, some will abuse them, but I would rather tolerate this abuse than live in a rigid world that allows no tolerance for bad luck or human variation. I will not argue this point with respect to net neutrality, because I see no need to. Anyone with an agile mind should be able to think of some desirable exceptions to the principle of net neutrality. And whilst net neutrality may be the right principle to follow 99.9 percent of the time, it cannot be proven a good law by observing 999 situations where it delivered the right results. It can only be proven a bad law by the one situation where the result was wrong, and should have been avoided.
India’s telecoms regulator, TRAI, has ruled that nobody should be able to visit Wikipedia for free, unless all their data usage is free. They do not say it like that, of course. They say it like this:
No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content.
Whilst Wikipedia has been a noble attempt to spread free education around the world, freely giving away the bits and bytes that lead us to Wikipedia would supposedly be unfair to all other websites, including the ones which disseminate porn, and the ones which encourage gambling. Wikipedia became popular because people actually wanted it, and freely gave to it, not because of any unfair promotion. But now we need a net neutrality rule, to prevent unfair promotion. Does that seem like a good rule to you? It seems like a daft rule to me.
That does not mean TRAI really believes in net neutrality. According to them, the principle of net neutrality must be followed unless they have identified a worthwhile exception. And which exceptions are worthwhile?
… a service provider may reduce tariff for accessing or providing emergency services, or at times of grave public emergency…
So net neutrality can have no exceptions, except for these exceptions, which makes me wonder how people feel so strongly about the rule in the first place. Once you allow one exception, or two, where does that leave your insistence there must be no more exceptions? And are these exceptions much more worthy than every other exception I could reasonably think of? Using the internet to supply emergency healthcare is presumably an exception, but non-emergency healthcare needs to wait in line with porn and gambling. When you are about to be murdered, you can pay a lower price to message the police, but if you want to tell the police about a murder, you have to pay the full cost. Prices can be lowered at a time of grave public emergency, but not when the public emergency is less than ‘grave’, whatever that means. And your private emergencies will always be charged at full rate, without exception.
The same silliness is confounding common sense all over the globe. An American law professor wrote a 51-page document explaining why T‑Mobile’s “Binge On” service should not be allowed to supply any content for free, because it distorts the market, even though any business could choose to partner with T‑Mobile, and so benefit from this distortion. That is like arguing supermarkets should never give unwanted food to charity, because other supermarkets prefer to destroy food instead. It is like arguing all buskers should be banned from public places, not because they are a nuisance that take up space, but because their freely-supplied music affects the popularity of musicians who choose to exclusively work in concert halls. It is like arguing I should not be allowed to book a ride using Uber, because the fare will be cheaper than if I used a metered taxi. Apparently the human race is too stupid to handle these choices, so neither the suppliers, nor the customers, should be allowed a choice.
Human societies can cope with people giving things away for free. No human society has ever experienced a perfectly free market, devoid of any distortions. A society like that would have to prohibit anyone cooking a meal for friends, because of the impact on restaurants, and it would have to ban anyone carrying passengers in their car, because of the impact on public transport. So why do some people think the internet is so pathetic, so inflexible, so vulnerable that it will collapse if anyone chooses to be charitable, or if we assign a higher priority to important content? The internet spread across the world before any government thought about enforcing net neutrality in law. Why will it be so grievously harmed if we treat net neutrality as a sensible principle to be followed in most cases, instead of turning it a rigid iron-clad law that must be followed without deviation?
Enforcing net neutrality laws will do more to kill the internet than its supporters care to admit. These laws will not greatly diminish the internet we already have, but they will devastate the internet we could have in future. Imagination is crucial to all innovation, but net neutrality laws prohibit imagination. One single dogmatic rule will be used to invalidate every exception that could be dreamed up by you, or I, or by somebody smarter than both of us. Why create an application to provide non-emergency but bandwidth-intensive remote healthcare, when the law says videos of kittens deserve an equal share of bandwidth? Why lower the cost of remote education, when you can charge children (and their parents) the same price for learning new skills as for playing video games? Why differentiate between good and bad, desirable and tolerable, fast and slow, important and trivial, when we can apply a single unbending principle, and insist it is the morally and economically righteous thing to do? Why imagine a future world which is better for a little differentiation, when we can just forbid it now, and never face the consequences of our decision?
As demonstrated by recent events in India and the USA, net neutrality is a good principle which is being taken too far, a reasonable rule of thumb turned into foolishly unyielding law. No government anywhere has the subtlety to both enforce the principle and to list all the desirable exceptions which we can think of now, and which people would think of in future, if we allow them the opportunity to think freely. We could, as human beings, use societal pressure to achieve our goals; most of us choose to hold doors open for strangers, even though no law forces us to do so. For some inexplicable reason, millions of net neutrality advocates consider themselves too impotent to achieve their goals that way, which is why they lobby governments to preserve an ‘undistorted’ market for all time, even though this supposed absence of distortion is no different to saying the internet should be limited to what was technologically achievable in the year 2001. By turning a simple protocol for how networks function into a divine ordnance, we risk stifling the invention, investment, and passion that has made the internet so glorious, and so global.
I want to live in a world where life-saving operations can be performed at great distances over the internet, without fear of competition from Netflix. I want to live in a world where governments and regulators punish clear wrongdoing after it takes place, instead of banning a swathe of future possibilities because some people might seek to exploit them. Net neutrality should be a principle that guides decision-making, not the final decision. It should remain a principle, and not become an extreme and unyielding doctrine that shuts down the exploration of any alternatives. The incarnations of net neutrality that have become fashionable amongst politicians and some voters are bad for businesses, bad for customers, and bad for people in general, even if they lack the imagination to realize it. The progressive transformation of net neutrality from a technical principle into a political dogma has become the greatest single legal threat to the evolution of electronic communications. Too much time has been spent discussing apocalyptic hypotheses about what might go wrong unless net neutrality is enshrined in law. But now net neutrality is being turned into law in the USA and India, we are seeing the real, and negative consequences of a rush to overlegislate. They ban the free delivery of Wikipedia because that would be prejudicial to rival websites. I know where my prejudices lie, and it is not with the dogmatic political classes who have reached this wrong-headed conclusion.