To understand net neutrality, review the tragedy of the commons

Internet Neutrality and the tragedy of the commons

Is the Internet as we know it about to come to an end? If you read a lot of the online discussion on the topic of Internet Neutrality and pending FCC rule changes that will undo it, you would think so. What impact will this have for us average Joes? To appreciate this, we first need a definition. Internet Neutrality refers to the alleged state of affairs, namely, that any of us have the same unfettered access to the Internet and that regardless of status, any of us can download and upload data on the Internet just like anyone else.

Most (OK, everything) of what I’ve read regarding Internet Neutrality seems to focus on a loss of freedom and access for the regular folks in favor of the big boys making a power and money grab to segment the Internet to control content in ways most of us would find distasteful and disadvantageous. Is that all that’s going on? Unfortunately, no. To understand this issue we have to review the tragedy of the commons, an economic illustration describing what happens when we use shared resources as we see fit individually and even communally without taking into account the need to manage those resources. Before we go there, however, we need to take a quick look at whether the Internet is neutral now.

How neutral is the Internet for me now, really?

For someone like me, trying to promote his writing and photography, I feel some comfort knowing that I’m using the same infrastructure as say, Facebook or Twitter, the big boys. If I believe this, the Internet is neutral, egalitarian. My content (posts like this one) flow at the same speed as search results from Google, another big boy on the block. But is that really true?

Not really. My website’s host provider does not give me the same server farm that Google enjoys. Not even close. Net-NeutralityMy content comes out slower than Google’s. Faster options are available if, you guessed, I pay more. Strike one.

Strike two comes here on the client side, as I type this post into my WordPress editor and upload a cute, Pinterest-worthy (I hope) cartoon to go with it. It turns out that to get my Internet access I have to pay a certain cable provider, and that provider offers different packages. To get the speed I thought I needed, I’m paying for the Turbo package, right in the middle of five — count them five — packages my provider offers at varying data bandwidths. Not so egalitarian, is it? If you’re counting, that’s strike two.

Will Eduardo strike out? With a fast ball, or with a curve ball? Probably a knuckle ball, but before we go there, let’s note what the two prior observations have in common, namely that it costs money to store, serve and transfer big data at high rates. To understand the full implications, let’s look at the tragedy of the commons.

Cows, pastures, freeways, cars, and Internet Neutrality

Google it up. Go ahead. Use that neutral Internet and look up the tragedy of the commons. You will find it has to do with people letting their cattle run rampant on shared pastures to the detriment of all. If that doesn’t quite connect with your 21st century mind, let’s use a word picture that has to do with traffic, since that’s a big part of what’s at stake with Internet Neutrality. That’s right, let’s talk about cars and freeways.

I live in Los Angeles, and I deal with the tragedy of the commons every day as I drive to and from work. A resource that is perceived as free has undergone overuse that grinds it to a virtual halt. Dial-up speeds feel downright speedy compared to the progress many of us make from one minute to the next on one of these concrete and metal rivers. How has this overuse come to pass? Because we all have equal access to these roads, in many cases at fairly low costs — or more to the point, low perceived costs, because we’re not thinking about the productivity loss and environmental costs we incur and impose on others when we sit in traffic. Instead, we use it, and overuse it, to the point it becomes virtually useless to all of us.

How does this relate to the Internet? At stake is the question whether someone dumping or downloading gobs of data should pay the same price as someone who’s serving up or accessing smaller data. Part of me hates that at certain peak hours, namely during primetime, my cable provider caps Netflix bandwidth so that I get a slower speed then, a faster speed after midnight. But the fact is that if I got mine during primetime, and so did my neighbor, and his neighbor and so on, we would all be sitting in traffic, grinding to a halt, perhaps with even worse bandwidth than what my cable provider is managing to provide.

Is the FCC trying to save us from the tragedy of the commons? Are the lobbyists pushing for rule updates to look after our best interest? I doubt it. More than likely, this is coming about from the good old drive to make a buck. Yet that should provide us a clue. The underlying, core issue is economic.

I know many have framed this in terms of information control. As an author, in love with the written word and freedom of speech to convey it, an unfettered Internet provides me the conduit I need for self-expression and yes, self-promotion. Yet, in the same way I’d like to get paid for what I write, I have to recognize that precious things come at a price. Important resources require wise management.

In economic terms, however, along with the tragedy of the commons we must also take care to ensure free markets. The last thing we would want is one playing field for those who can afford a speedy Internet, and another that runs slower for entrepreneurs and start-up artists. We have to trade-off the careful management of shared precious resources against the chilling effect we could have on innovation and commerce if management turns into unfair constraints for those that can’t afford to drive in the fast lane. This is the discussion we need to have.

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