The ISPs are not the Internet

I have written in several locations explaining my objection to the FCC reversal of net neutrality. I have received pushback from some pro-business defenders so I have been trying to find a way to explain my position. This represents another attempt.The Internet and ISPs are different things.

Key points in my position

  • The ISPs should not be understood by consumers as “the Internet”
  • The Internet is already and should continue as a utility. The Internet is content and source neutral.
  • ISPs offer access to the Internet. The issue of neutrality that concerns me and others applies to ISPs. ISPs can have business interests other than selling access to the Internet. These multiple business interests can be in conflict. For example, a phone company allowing voice over the Internet (VOIP) or a cable company selling movies and allowing users to access Netflix. Issues such as net neutrality concern opportunities ISPs can and could use to their financial advantage (e.g., slow video from some providers to favor video they sell or companies paying for privileged access)
  • The logic for keeping government out of business matters is typically that competition will assure consumers get a good deal. This is the position commonly taken by politicians who object to government regulations. However, the reality is that a large proportion of those who want to access the Internet have one and perhaps two choices. Meaningful competition is seldom available. Options that would allow greater competition such as community wifi are fought by ISPs typically by contributions to politicians. Small interests are unable to compete for the support of decision makers.

I have been struggling to think of an analogy that would explain this situation to those not that interested in the infrastructure they use when going online. What I have come up with is not perfect, but may be helpful.

Think of it this way. What if everyone was free to use the interstate highway system, but there was only one gas station available where they lived. If this station sold gas for $10 would they complain to and about the department of transportation or the gas station.

All of this is separate from the issue of whether or not your ISP should be able to sell data related to your online activity. It is true that some locations you visit when online do this, but these sites can be avoided if you object, the sites typically do not charge you for your use and the presentation of ads and data collected is how they find themselves, and you can avoid the sites if you want. In many situations, there is no way to avoid the ISP you use. This is another reason regulation makes sense.

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