On Studying Net Neutrality: It’s a Whole Other Ball Game

“In a digital world, the number of channels is theoretically infinite, and no one can tell anyone what to consume. We are the ultimate deciders, fully in charge of our media destinies, choosing what to look at, actively seeking and clicking instead of having our consumption foisted upon us by a cabal of corporate executives.”

– Astra Taylor, in The People’s Platform, p. 3

In a study about discussions of Net Neutrality, one of the first things that strikes me in the literature is the idea that there may be a telecommunications executive who has envisioned a market in which they may actively monetize both sides of an internet protocol – not only charging internet users for network access, but also charging content providers for responding to user access.

In a survey by Krämer, Wiewiorra and Weinhardt (2013) there’s a quote from a former CEO of AT&T, Ed Whitacre. The quote is provided in further context, in an article by Matt Stoler at HuffPost:

“How do you think they’re going to get to customers? […] Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there’s going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they’re using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?”

– Ed Whitacre

In candor, it makes me wonder about how far the telecommunications industry’s executives might have understood the technology that they’re seeking to monetize. The Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) similar to other network application protocols (e.g for email) it is in essence a demand-driven protocol. Under normal circumstances, a Web server does not begin to spontaneously transmit data. Unless the server has been programmed to spontaneously initiate Web requests, a Web server does not begin to transmit data until after some Web user agent (e.g a Web browser) has initiated a request for a resource, to the Web server.

There may be a metaphor towards delivery of postal mail, in describing how the network request and the network response are both delivered across the Internet. Perhaps a metaphor of checking out a library book (by mail) could be appropriate for describing how it’s managed at the level of a Web server.

Of course, the Web server would not usually expect the data to be returned, after two weeks.

… and the Library would not normally add advertisements in between the pages. It’s not a perfect metaphor.

The general idea that I hope to illustrate, in the metaphor: As it being a telecommunications network, the Web is a system driven on user demand. Outside of any questionable software that could be installed on a personal computer, any advertisers and other commercial interests would not have access to an Internet User’s desktop until after the Internet User has requested some Web-based resource from one Web site or another.

To envision a market in which Web publishers would be charged for responding to user demand – as a grain of salt, Ed Whitacre is no longer the CEO at AT&T (Wikipedia). In a broader sense, perhaps the former CEO’s remarks may be illustrative of the albeit simple idea that the telecommunications industry wants to make a profit on Internet access – whether or not every proposed profit model may be sustainable for the architecture of the Internet.

As a topic affecting the telecommunications industry, beside all of us who use the Internet as Internet Users, Net Neturality has certainly invited a lot of discussion in social media, in the academic literature, and on PBS. Certainly it’s also invited a number of governmental policy shifts over time, mainly focusing on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

PBS has provided some materials that may help to explain the policy changes around Net Neutrality, by the FCC in the duration 2016-2020: Debate the Issue: Net Neutrality. The discussion in the following video features a 2017 interview with Axios technology editor, Kim Hart.

The video from PBS News Hour provides an introduction about the deregulation during the time of the Trump Entourage’s influence in the FCC. The video also introduces the commercial interests converging in the discussion about Net Neutrality.

AP provides an insight that the Net Neutrality policies at the FCC may be reverted to their original form, now under President Biden. The article also provides an introduction about a policy introduced in California, after the actions of the previous FCC administration. While the newer reforms may appear to be stuck in a governmental gridlock generally between the legislature, the courts, and the commercial interests, but perhaps the story of Net Neutrality will continue to develop over time.

How does this affect us though, the Internet Users? If network service providers would begin to charge and charge competitively for so much as responding to user requests on the Web, I would imagine that it would lead the Web to fall apart, in the US.

Complimentary to the demand-driven nature of Web system protocols, the Web systems market is essentially a demand-driven economy. While there may be a bit of prestige pricing going on, with some service providers – I’m thinking of Microsoft Azure, for instance – yet it is not a luxury economy, at the scale of telecommunication services on the Web.

If the commercial model proposed by Ed Whitacre could hold water, in a phrase, but would he propose to charge the city’s public works department for the presumed privilege of sending water down the pipe? while property owners are already paying to receive the water?

Returning to the deregulation at the FCC during the Trump Entourage, I believe it’s fair to estimate that it was a performative policy change – in essence, that it was another act in the Trump Entourage’s four year grudge against the administration of President Obama. As it comprising a federal policy decision, I believe it’s lead ultimately to more of confusion and more lawsuits towards the telecommunications industry. I do not believe it was a well justified decision, on the part of the FCC’s topmost leadership. For how insubstantial the explanation may seem from the FCC director at the time – not to stir up a conspiracy meme, in candor I wonder if the FCC’s director had even originated the decision or if it was dispatched from the presidential office, in that duration. We could ask, who did the President think was the owner of the FCC, at then? Perhaps the answer would be unsurprising.

In a technical/cultural sense, albeit speculatively, perhaps the emergence of the Net Neutrality discussion itself may have contributed to the popularity of virtual private networking (VPN) services on the Internet, while Internet Users might seek a work-around for any content filtering that might emerge at the network service provider. Of course, this too would become considerably more difficult, if a company was to charge at both ends of the proverbial network pipe.


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