Six Lines

Bad Analogies for Network Neutrality

Posted by Aaron Massey on 24 Jan 2018.

Network Neutrality has been an important technology policy topic for well over a decade, but the average person still doesn’t really understand what it’s all about. I’ve written about network neutrality before, and I’m just not sure there’s an easy analogy to help explain it. Still, it’s a complex technology policy topic with the potential to directly affect how millions of people experience the Internet. This leads to journalists seeking analogies to explain it. Unfortunately, most of these analogies are simply wrong a basic level. Every time I see one, it makes me cringe. Here’s a good example:

There are two critical problems with this analogy. First, by saying that an ISP is like a bar, they analogy implicitly assumes that the ISP has complete control over everything that happens in their corner of the Internet. Property laws provide bar owners with almost complete control over the experience customers have in their bars. This isn’t actually the case on the Internet.

Peering is a mutual agreement, but many, if not most, content providers send a lot more data than they receive, making this mutual arrangement rather one sided. ISPs have countered by charging extreme examples, like Netflix, fees to cover the costs of this arrangement. Netflix is so big now that many small and mid-sized ISPs have customers demanding Netflix and no clout to get Netflix to help with the build out.

Second, the role the content providers play in content delivery is completely missing. In their analogy, content providers are beers and the ISP is pictured as having complete control over what’s in stock and how quickly it can get to the customer. This also isn’t true for ISPs on the Internet.

People don’t want a huge tech company to be able to pay for a “fast lane” to deliver their content faster than their competitors, but this is already happening. The current “fast lanes” are called Content Delivery Networks, and they were built by content providers or third parties like Akamai. In the analogy, beer providers (think Google or Facebook) are paying to build taps for their product right at the tables for the customers. You may not want to drink whatever Facebook is serving, but it’s really fast and convenient to do so with the tap right at your table. Again, in a real bar, this couldn’t happen without the bar owner’s consent, which is why this is just a bad analogy. People worried about ISPs throttling content to prefer one company over another are missing the fact that huge content providers have already built (and are continuing to expand) infrastructure that ensures their competition is going to feel throttled.

And just to be clear, I’ll state for the record, I don’t think it’s fair for an ISP that also owns content to artificially slow down their competitors. The example they point out in the video is apt. However, this isn’t an issue exclusive to ISPs. It applies to any platform. Amazon is a great example. Amazon is both a marketplace and a vendor selling goods on that marketplace. Do you think they aren’t preferring their own products when you search for something like batteries? (Try it. See what happens.) Do you think they aren’t collecting data on how long you look at competitor products or whether you put an Energizer in your cart? My point is that this is a classic antitrust concern, and it should be treated as such. By rolling this into Network Neutrality, we’re only solving part of the problem.

I want a fair and open Internet, but bad analogies aren’t helping us get there. I’m not opposed to regulation, but any fair approach needs to consider all the parties involved. At the moment, we’re just looking at ISPs, which are for the most part pretty awful companies that no one really likes. We only notice them when they fail or do stupid things. Content providers are going to win the PR battle. People enjoy watching shows on Netflix, and some of that experience is transferred to the Netflix brand. But the reality is that they are also huge tech companies. Pushing through regulation to favor one set of huge tech companies over another isn’t consistent with my notion of fair and open, and I’m not sure cutesy bar analogies are ever going to clarify that.