Net ‘Neutrality’ or Net Dynamism? Easy Choice.

Consumers beware. A big content company wants to help pay for the sports you love to watch.

ESPN is reportedly talking with one or more mobile service providers about a new arrangement in which the sports giant might agree to pay the mobile providers so that its content doesn’t count against a subscriber’s data cap. People like watching sports on their mobile devices, but web video consumes lots of data and is especially tough on bandwidth-constrained mobile networks. The mobile providers and ESPN have noticed usage slowing as consumers approach their data subscription ceilings, after which they are commonly charged overage fees. ESPN doesn’t like this. It wants people to watch as much as possible. This is how it sells advertising. ESPN wants to help people watch more by, in effect, boosting the amount of data a user may consume — at no cost to the user.

As good a deal as this may be for consumers (and the companies involved), the potential arrangement offends some people’s very particular notion of “network neutrality.” They often have trouble defining what they mean by net neutrality, but they know rule breakers when they see them. Sure enough, long time net neutrality advocate Public Knowledge noted, “This is what a network neutrality violation looks like.”

The basic notion is that all bits on communications networks should be treated the same. No prioritization, no discrimination, and no partnerships between content companies and conduit companies. Over the last decade, however, as we debated net neutrality in great depth and breadth, we would point out that such a notional rule would likely result in many perverse consequences. For example, we noted that, had net neutrality existed at the time, the outlawing of pay-for-prioritization would have banned the rise of content delivery networks (CDNs), which have fundamentally improved the user experience for viewing online content. When challenged in this way, the net neutrality proponents would often reply, Well, we didn’t mean that. Of course that should be allowed. We also would point out that yesterday’s and today’s networks discriminate among bits in all sorts of ways, and that we would continue doing so in the future. Their arguments often deteriorated into a general view that Bad things should be banned. Good things should be allowed. And who do you think would be the arbiter of good and evil? You guessed it.

So what is the argument in the case of ESPN? The idea that ESPN would pay to exempt its bits from data caps apparently offends the abstract all-bits-equal notion. But why is this bad in concrete terms? No one is talking about blocking content. In fact, by paying for a portion of consumers’ data consumption, such an arrangement can boost consumption and consumer choice. Far from blocking content, consumers will enjoy more content. Now I can consume my 2 gigabytes of data plus all the ESPN streaming I want. That’s additive. And if I don’t watch ESPN, then I’m no worse off. But if the mobile company were banned from such an arrangement, it may be forced to raise prices for everyone. Now, because ESPN content is popular and bandwidth-hungry, I, especially as an ESPN non-watcher, am worse off.

So the critics’ real worry is, I suppose, that ESPN, by virtue of its size, could gain an advantage on some other sports content provider who chose not to offer a similar uncapped service. But this is NOT what government policy should be — the micromanagement of prices, products, the structure of markets, and relationships among competitive and cooperative firms. This is what we warned would happen. This is what we said net neutrality was really all about — protecting some firms and punishing others. Where is the consumer in this equation?

These practical and utilitarian arguments about technology and economics are important. Yet they ignore perhaps the biggest point of all: the FCC has no authority to regulate the Internet. The Internet is perhaps the greatest free-flowing, fast-growing, dynamic engine of cultural and economic value we’ve known. The Internet’s great virtue is its ability to change and grow, to foster experimentation and innovation. Diversity in networks, content, services, apps, and business models is a feature, not a bug. Regulation necessarily limits this freedom and diversity, making everything more homogeneous and diminishing the possibilities for entrepreneurship and innovation. Congress has given the FCC no authority to regulate the Internet. The FCC invented this job for itself and is now being challenged in court.

Possible ESPN-mobile partnerships are just the latest reminder of why we don’t want government limiting our choices — and all the possibilities — on the Internet.

— Bret Swanson

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