Net Futility

In 2003, law professor Tim Wu, now special adviser at the Office of the New York State Attorney General, coined the term “network neutrality” in his paper “NETWORK NEUTRALITY, BROADBAND DISCRIMINATION.” Here’s how he described the concept:

So what is attractive about a neutral network — that is, an Internet that does not favor one application (say, the world wide web), over others (say, email)? Who cares if the Internet is better for some things than others?

The argument for network neutrality must be understood as a concrete expression of a system of belief about innovation, one that has gained significant popularity over last two decades. The belief system goes by many names.Here we can refer to it generally as the evolutionary model.

Speaking very generally, adherents view the innovation process as a survival-of-the-fittest competition among developers of new technologies. They are suspicious of models of development that might vest control in any initial prospect-holder, private or public, who is expected to direct the optimal path of innovation, minimizing the excesses of innovative competition. The suspicion arises from the belief that the most promising path of development is difficult to predict in advance, and the argument that any single prospect holder will suffer from cognitive biases (such as a predisposition to continue with current ways of doing business) that make it unlikely to come to the right decisions, despite best intentions.

This account is simplistic; of interest is what the theory says for network design. A communications network like the Internet can be seen as a platform for a competition among application developers. Email, the web, and streaming applications are in a battle for the attention and interest of end-users. It is therefore important that the platform be neutral to ensure the competition remains meritocratic.

This is notable for 1) being a clearer articulation of the concept than all the approximately 100 trillion second-paragraph “in case you don’t knows” written since, and 2) sounding openly market-friendly. It speaks to how effective the lobbying efforts to characterize net neutrality as government meddling have been that this defense of a particular “innovation process” feels at odds with net neutrality as it is commonly understood: not so much a safeguard against The Big Corporations as a policy to help The Right Big Corporations float to the top, and to prevent them from getting too comfortable or entrenched by allowing smaller corporations, which might someday become The Big Corporations, the space to survive.

Anyway, today, here we are.

T-Mobile will allow some subscribers to stream video from 24 popular services free, without burning through their data caps.

The nation’s third-largest wireless carrier, looking to gain competitive advantage over rivals Sprint, AT&T; and Verizon, is giving customers the ability to stream videos on their smartphones and tablets without generating data charges. Subscribers can choose among popular streaming services including Netflix, HBO Now, HBO Go, Watch ESPN, Fox Sports and Hulu.

They’ve been doing this for a while with music services. It just… happened. And, as a T-Mobile subscriber, it’s sort of nice! I don’t have to worry about listening to Soundcloud all day. What makes this “nice,” of course, is that it helps me avoid data limits set in the plan provided to me by T-Mobile. The company is saving me from its own policies. I am grateful for this because I have entered into a long and expensive agreement with T-Mobile, which was one of a few choices I had when buying a phone. It’s nice in the context of being more or less stuck, in other words. I am similarly grateful that T-Mobile doesn’t require standard two-year contracts anymore, because it makes me feel slightly less stuck with them, and lets me upgrade more, despite still existing in a generally unchanged general wireless situation.

So this is an interesting moment! Net neutrality more or less dies, and, under the conditions created by carriers, it feels almost…good? All of this is to say, I guess, that Wu was even more right than he imagined. May the best streaming service (available on your carrier) win (at something).

Image via Someecards