Facebook wants it both ways on net neutrality

It’s no surprise that Facebook is a lefty corporation. Businesses’ decisions are generally dictated by the bottom line; regardless of ideological bent (if they possess one), the primary purpose of a business is to make money. Still, most of the ‘hip’ companies these days are ‘progressive’ and try to cozy up to the left whenever doing so comes at a minimal cost.

Facebook has, for a while now, been a supporter of ‘net neutrality. The landscape has been shifting as Netflix, John Oliver, and President Obama by degrees came out in support of the alliterative and misleading term, and now even former opponents accept and praise net neutrality to some extent. Even the telecom companies and ISPs that are challenging the FCC’s recent net neutrality order are saying that they accept the “bright line rules” proposed, and Republican members of Congress have also reversed position.

“Net neutrality” is a complicated issue, because the anatomy of the internet is complex. In its simplest form, net neutrality is the idea that all traffic over the internet should be treaty equally by governments and ISPs. On its face, this sounds good to most people. “Neutrality.” “Equality.” These are good words. Nice words.

In practice, however, things are not so simple. Putting aside the fact that the routing of internet traffic is not always so straightforward as many people vaguely perceive it to be, the concept of net neutrality is a mixed bag. Advocates use nice sounding words to gain popular support, and bashing powerful ISPs is always going to good move for PR. I’m not saying ISPs don’t deserve much of the scorn and criticism heaped upon them, but I do believe any regulation imposed upon them should be carefully considered and should not be arbitrarily applied to score “social justice” points.

I will also skip over the issue of reclassification under Title II for now. That is another hairy and pedantic aspect of the net neutrality debate.

What I would like to point out is that net neutrality, which bans “throttling,” blocking, and paid prioritization, is not a slam dunk for consumers. There is a type of service known in the industry as “zero-rated.” This type of service is usually paid for by its provider or by the ISP, and is usually meant to encourage user signups.

In the US, one example is T-Mobile’s Music Freedom program. Qualifying users can stream participating music services, like Pandora and iHeartRadio, over 4G without any of that data being deducted from their monthly allotment. In other words, it’s free data. This is good for consumers, no? It’s worth noting that T-Mobile supports net neutrality.

Abroad, Facebook has been working with carriers on a zero-rated service called “Internet.org.” Basically, participating carriers let their users visit Facebook and other partnering websites and applications for free – no data required. In India, in particular, this is expected to connect a huge amount of people who have had no access to the internet. This is a good thing, no?

Well, not according to net neutrality advocates. One intelligent gentleman quoted by Reuters weighed in, saying “Did we give unlimited free calls to people so that more people start making calls? So why this almost patronizing approach to the Internet. You’re effectively disadvantaging other companies and broader usage of the web.”

Honestly, that is incomprehensible to me. It’s patronizing to give millions of people free internet access because…it disadvantages companies that can’t be accessed for free. So they would rather people be unable to use the internet at all rather than be able to access competitors’ websites and services. How altruistic.

Zuckerberg pushed back on this criticism. Also from Reuters:

Zuckerberg_2376097b“The principles of neutrality must co-exist with programs that also encourage bringing people online,” he told Reuters.

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a video post: “Access equals opportunity. Net neutrality should not prevent access. We need both, it’s not an equal Internet if the majority of people can’t participate.”

The problem here is that Marky wants it both ways – net neutrality when it sounds good, but not when it interferes with Facebook’s expansion. I fully agree with him that net neutrality should not prevent access, but advocates are boxing themselves into this. Providing access to some services for free and not all the others isn’t equal treatment of internet traffic, now is it? How terrible for consumers.

One major difference between the US and other parts of the world is that American antitrust law has traditionally been more consumer-focused. The government goes after companies that are hurting customers. In places like Europe and (apparently) India, competition receives more consideration. It is assumed that what’s good for competition is good for consumers. Even if that means taking free services away from consumers, or endlessly hectoring popular services like Google search.

Tech companies are not going to realign themselves anytime soon, and they probably won’t learn that getting in bed with the left is bad for business in general. So now we are entertaining this notion of net neutrality.




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