The Phantom Menaces in the ACLU’s Case for Net Neutrality

I’m accustomed to finding myself on the same page as the American Civil Liberties Union–and in particular with the razor sharp Jay Stanley, who heads their Technology & Liberty program. But their recent report urging the necessity of net neutrality regulation only makes me more skeptical. I’ve always pretty much shared the position of my colleague Tim Lee: The open, end-to-end nature of the Internet is an important driver of both innovation and free expression–important enough that if it were systematically threatened, there would be a decent case for regulatory intervention. But that end-to-end architecture is also pretty resilient, even if some ISPs might wish otherwise. And while it’s easy to think of deviations from neutrality that would be pernicious, it’s also not hard to imagine specific non-neutral practices that might benefit consumers without undermining that broader end-to-end structure. The real policy question ought to be how to get enough competition in broadband markets that consumer choice selects for the latter against the former. Since broadband isn’t all that competitive in many regions, the question is whether we can afford to wait and deal with problems as they arise in a narrowly tailored way, or whether there’s some urgent need for a broad architectural mandate.

The ACLU says there is, and cites ten terrifying “abuses” that supposedly show the need to legislate now. But as I read over the list, I found I couldn’t help but think of those old Saturday Night Life “Coffee Talk” sketches, where a farklempt Mike Meyers would throw out such food for thought as: “Grape Nuts contain neither grapes nor nuts, discuss.” Because ACLU’s list of abuses mostly consists of examples that either aren’t actually net neutrality violations, or for which there are obvious remedies that don’t require neutrality regulation. Let’s discuss:

  • AT&T’s “jamming” of a Pearl Jam concert, in which singer Eddie Vedder’s remarks attacking then-president George Bush were bleeped out of a webcast. Obviously, it would be pretty troubling if your ISP were filtering your datastream to remove political content of which it disapproved. But that’s not what happened here at all. AT&T, via a deal with the Lollapalooza music festival, was streaming the Pearl Jam concert on its own content hub. Now, obviously, whoever was editing the stream and decided to treat criticism of Bush as equivalent to profanity made a highly dubious judgment call, but the point is that AT&T was acting as a content provider here, not a carrier: The filtering happened before the content hit the network, and no proposed neutrality rules I’m aware of would have prohibited this.
  • BellSouth’s “censorship” of Myspace. According to BellSouth’s own account, a glitch in their system temporarily left their outraged users unable to access the popular social networking site. “Some suspected” that the company was actually testing some kind of tiered access system, and decided to do so by blocking a popular site without notice, antagonizing their paying customers. Some also suspect the moon landing was faked, but I wouldn’t make it the basis of legislation.
  • Verizon briefly denied the abortion-rights group NARAL access to a program whereby users who texted a dedicated “short code” could sign up for SMS updates; the company almost immediately reversed its decision. This is, obviously, not a case involving Internet neutrality, and while it’s certainly a case involving the ability of a network owner to discriminate between users of its network services, the issues involved are pretty different. These “short code” services often permit users to either sign up for fee-based updates or donate money to causes via charge added directly to their monthly phone bill. As indicated by their prompt reversal, the rationale for denying NARAL here–desire to avoid partnering with causes on either side of a “controversial” issue–was probably ill considered, but this is clearly a case where the company is partnering with the provider in a way that goes beyond carriage, because they’re also effectively acting as a payment processor. That means they’ll have an interest in vetting partners in a way you wouldn’t expect a mere carrier to vet every content provider on the network. Even if you think this particular type of discrimination ought to be prohibited, this is really a distinct case raising issues separate from those involved in the Internet Neutrality debate, and ought to be considered separately.
  • Proposed filtering for copyright infringement. This is indeed a terrible and, in practice, unimplementable idea–for one because there’s no easy way to distinguish illegal from legal copying (as when I stream music I’ve purchased from my desktop or server to a mobile device). There’s also a pretty good case that this would already be illegal under federal wiretap laws…which may be why the “proposals,” referenced in an article from January 2008, haven’t actually gotten anywhere.

There are a handful of other cases that either may or definitely do count as potentially troubling neutrality violations–the most famous being Comcast’s throttling of BitTorrent traffic. At least two involve ISPs in Canada, which I wouldn’t have thought is the FCC’s problem. In some of these cases, I’d even agree that regulatory action is justified–but by the FTC, not the FCC. If you are advertising access to “the Internet,” then choking off access to whole classes of popular services or degrading throughput well below advertised speeds, well, that’s what we call a deceptive business practice. (In a more libertarian world, this might be handled by another mechanism; in the world we’ve got, it’s the FTC’s lookout.) Maybe there’s a case to be made for more specific transparency rules to establish when and how consumers have to be informed about non-neutral routing policies–certainly no ISP should be allowed to block access to a website and conceal the policy by making it look like a technical glitch–but I have no idea why you’d make the leap to a sweeping architectural mandate before trying something along those lines.

More generally, I’m a little puzzled about why the ACLU is weighing in on this at all. It’s true that ISP routing practices, like the practices of many private firms, could have implications for “free expression” broadly conceived. But not everything that might promote or hinder expression is part of the civil liberties portfolio, which has traditionally been limited to restraints on freedom imposed by government. To the extent federal policies inhibit broadband competition, one might say the government is in some sense complicit in whatever private policies restrict expression, but here again, the obvious remedy is to look for more pro-competitive policies. In any event, this is far enough outside their usual wheelhouse that you’d think it would make more sense for them to remain, well… neutral on this one.