Argument: Openness of Internet limits network owner control

Issue Report: Network neutrality


“Network Neutrality is Not in Danger.” The Cato Institute on Opposing Views: “Advocates of regulation greatly underestimate the durability of the Internet’s open architecture. They seem to think that Comcast, AT&T, or other Internet firms can simply flip a switch somewhere and transform the Internet into a proprietary network. The reality is very different.

To see why, let’s consider the last big network neutrality dispute: Comcast’s interference with BitTorrent traffic. BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer file-sharing application that is used for a wide variety of purposes. One significant application is the sharing of pirated music and movies. BitTorrent traffic has been growing rapidly, and Comcast, in an effort to reduce congestion on its network, implemented a scheme that interfered with BitTorrent traffic.

Many commentators, myself included, roundly criticized Comcast for this. Not only did Comcast violate network neutrality, and not only did it choose a clumsy technique that violated important technical standards and interfered with unrelated traffic, but Comcast also refused to explain to customers what it was doing and why.

But when the mainstream media reported on Comcast’s actions last August, two important things happened within a few months. First, there was a significant consumer backlash. Faced with bad press, Comcast backpedaled, first denying that it was interfering with BitTorrent traffic at all, then giving misleading accounts of what it was doing, and finally admitting that it was, indeed, interfering with BitTorrent traffic. By this March, Comcast was pledging to stop blocking BitTorrent traffic. At the same time, BitTorrent users took matters into their own hands and began swapping tips for evading Comcast’s interference. Many of them started using an encrypted variant of the BitTorrent protocol that was able to sneak by Comcast’s filters. Even if Comcast had wanted to continue blocking BitTorrent traffic, its efforts would have gotten less effective over time, as more and more users switched to the encrypted version of the program.

Only months later did the FCC get involved in the case. In July, long after Comcast had announced plans to stop interfering with BitTorrent traffic, the FCC finally handed down a decision slapping Comcast on the wrist and warning it not to do it again. There are serious questions about whether the FCC even had the authority to rule on the issue, but what’s crystal clear is that the FCC moved far too slowly to have any real impact.

The moral of the story is that ownership of a platform does not confer power to control how that platform is used. History is full of examples of users using technology in ways that defied the wishes of its creators. We only need to think of the recent phenomena of “jailbroken” iPhones to see that when companies try to restrict users’ freedom, users take matters into their own hands. That is all the more true on the Internet, a sprawling, complex network that was designed from the ground up to preserve network neutrality. Network providers who try to convert the Internet into a proprietary network will simply be shooting themselves in the foot, as they anger their customers without gaining significant control over their online activities. Network neutrality is here to stay, whether or not Congress mandates it.”