TV vs. internet

I didn’t bother to write anything on Neal Gabler’s vacuous piece in NYT’s Sunday Review on how the internet has somehow killed big ideas. Luckily others came up with worthwhile responses. I confess, I’m tired of responding to evidence-free anti-internet screeds (see here, here.) But Kevin Drum’s response had an interesting tidbit:

Honestly, I think I liked this genre better back when people blamed TV for the decline and fall of American youth. I always thought the anti-TV crowd at least had a point: television really did crowd out things like books and magazines, which were better suited to big ideas and complex arguments than the tube. But social networking? As near as I can tell, it’s mostly crowding out in-person gossip and….television. That seems like a much more benign trade.

Were anti-TV advocates as misguided and ill-informed as anti-internet commentators? I tend to agree with Drum that there’s a difference, and hold up the Net’s crowding out of TV as a benefit. But it’s an interesting comparison.

Bad arguments against net neutrality

Net neutrality is something where my bias is so clear (in favor) that I try to be extra careful not to stake out a position before I’ve thoroughly researched the issue.  For that reason I’m still not sure what I think about it even in principle, much less the FCC’s recently proposed rules.

So I was interested to see what points libertarian magazine Reason put forth in this anti-net neutrality video:

To start, I want to zero in on this line:

If AT&T DSL blocked your access to Google because they wanted you to use Yahoo, what would you do? Probably cancel your plan and go to a provider that gives you easy access to your favorite sites.

There are multiple things wrong with this statement.

First, this scenario completely ignores the widespread lack of competition between ISPs.  The consumer behavior the video describes only makes sense in the context of competitive internet service.  The libertarian’s response is to point out that the answer to that is reforming telecom regulation to foster competition.  But if that’s really your argument, you have to make some reference to it instead of misleading viewers into thinking that competition already exists.  In other words, the fact that the scenario Reason describes is only even possible if significant reforms pass first seems relevant.

Ok, now put that aside for a moment, and imagine enough competition existed for this kind of consumer behavior to be possible.  Is it plausible?  The video uses a nice trick to make us think it is: appealing to our universal love of Google.  So let’s flip it around and try that on for size:

If AT&T DSL blocked your access to Yahoo because they wanted you to use Google, what would you do?  Off the top of my head my answer is “Probably nothing.”

The third misleading thing about that example is the choice between incumbents.  Yahoo or Google?  If you tell me I can’t use Google I know enough about how much I love Google to seek out another provider.

But what about Google vs. the next great search company?  If Google can reach into its deep pockets to ensure its searches are delivered faster, that makes it a lot harder for an emerging company/technology to compete for market share.  New entrants not only lack the deep pockets to pay ISPs, they lack the name recognition required to convince consumers to seek out neutral ISPs.  Even if I would switch ISPs to make sure Google isn’t disadvantaged relative to Yahoo, would I actively switch from an ISP that equally prioritized incumbents in order to access new entrants I’d never heard of?

I don’t consider any of these to be case-closed arguments in favor of net neutrality.  But if these are the best arguments against net neutrality, they’re fairly weak.  The libertarian trump card, played at the end of the video, is unforeseen consequences, and I take that point seriously.  That’s one of the reasons I’ve not yet reached a firm position on net neutrality.

But while I may not have a stance on the issue, I do have a starting point, and it’s this: something incredibly important is at stake here.  Both at the software layer and the content layer we are seeing the rise of a fascinating model of information production.  I’ll once again defer on defining that model, except to say that is significantly non-commercial.  Non-commercial production is threatened by a non-neutral net, even more so than emergent commercial entities.  If you care about preserving that non-commercial aspect, if only to learn more about it and to see its full potential, you should care a lot about net neutrality.