Monday, December 21, 2009 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

The "Problem of Proportionality" in the Debate over Net Neutrality

Last week I commented on a severely one-sided FCC net neutrality hearing that featured a endless parade of horribles being prophesied by virtually every speaker. The litany of spooky stories became tedious and absurd. Everyone foretold of the impending doom that awaits unless government intervenes to save us from various corporate conspiracies to "silence" our voices. Unsurprisingly, evidence was in short supply. It was pure Chicken Little poppycock.

This got me thinking again about what I have referred to as the "problem of proportionality." I have discussed the problem of proportionality in the context of public policy debates about online safety and privacy, but it seems equally applicable to debates about net neutrality. Here's how I explained the "problem of proportionality" in an earlier essay:

let's think about how some of our lawmakers and media personalities talk about the Internet. If we were to judge the Internet based upon the daily headlines in various media outlets or from the titles of various Congressional or regulatory agency hearings, then we'd be led to believe that the Internet is a scary, dangerous place. That 's especially the case when it comes to concerns about online privacy and child safety. Everywhere you turn there's a bogeyman story about the supposed dangers of cyberspace. But let's go back to the numbers. While I certainly understand the concerns many folks have about their personal privacy or their child's safety online, the fact is the vast majority of online transactions that take place online each and every second of the day are of an entirely harmless, even socially beneficial nature. I refer to this disconnect as the "problem of proportionality" in debates about online safety and privacy. People are not just making mountains out of molehills, in many cases they are just making the molehills up or blowing them massively out of proportion.

Again, much the same is true of net neutrality. Indeed, it is even more true since actual net neutrality "incidents" are so hard to come by.

I was reminded of this recently when I was reading some stats posted over at the Verizon Policy Blog by Link Hoewing, Verizon's Assistant Vice President of Internet and Technology Issues. Link wrote, "every day over Verizon's network, 100 million people connect using a cell phone, landline phone or broadband connection. The amount of information they send back and forth is staggering:"

Indeed, those are staggering numbers. And I have seen similar numbers from other operators, although not quite as large as this.

But what I find most remarkable when I hear data about daily traffic volume is that all this activity is taking place without a peep about net neutrality "violations," you know, like those nefarious-minded corporate conspiracies to "silence" us by blocking speech or expression. Now, how can that be? After all, we don't have a net neutrality law on the books today. There's nothing stopping these carriers from engaging in the sort of behavior the worrywarts were predicting at last week's hearing.

Of course, the critics would counter with the old "it's-only-a-matter-of-time!" argument, or claim that the operators are on their best behavior right now because so many are watching for potential net neutrality violations. But there's no way to prove that one way or the other. It's all just conjecture at this stage. Regardless, the fact remains: trying to find actual net neutrality "violations" today is not just needle-in-the-haystack hard, it's darn near impossible.

The better explanation for why that is the case comes down to simple economics and sound business practices: (1) ISPs have no incentive to block traffic since they only make money make money by carrying more content, not less; and (2) angering customers and getting a bad rap with the press is really bad for business -- as in lost customers, lost shareholders, and therefore, lost profits.

So, it's important to bring a little sanity and proportionality back to debates about net neutrality. There's just no evidence supporting the horror stories bandied about about pro-regulatory critics. Billions of transactions are taking place online each and every day without any neutrality "violations" whatsoever.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 11:49 AM | Net Neutrality