Against net neutrality—sort of

Even if you are burning gigabytes learning calculus from streaming video online, you still need to pay for it


Was checking back through the blogging history of my fellow contributors and stumbled across this post. It sounds good, but to me it mixes up the concept of net neutrality with something completely different.

I define ‘net neutrality’ as the idea that internet providers or government do not restrict or monitor the theme of the content you view on the internet. Whether that content is MIT OpenCourseWare or something much less socially acceptable, that doesn’t matter. It’s not their business.

This is not the same thing as being granted unlimited access to the internet for free. It’s unreasonable to expect the nation’s ISPs to grant every household as much bandwidth as they can consume, even if they’re using it to view videos of lectures on linear algebra. Every time someone loads an internet page, it’s an order to send electrons through wires and transformers around the world. Unfortunately, that infrastructure does not come free. There is a real cost to accessing the internet. And it’s only fair that whoever gains the benefit – the user at home – pays the cost.

Sure, we could legislate that all internet providers need to provide free unlimited access to the internet to further the education of the populace, but it wouldn’t be long before Canada didn’t have a single company willing to provide internet service. Alternatively, how about bandwith used to access designated educational content is free? Well, then someone has to monitor your internet use to determine what sites are visited, which I don’t find acceptable and prevents us from reaching ‘net neutrality’ anyway.

This is nothing new. We pay the electric company for running our computer even if we’re accessing educational content. Bus fare or gas money to go to university classes. Etc, etc, etc. There is no free lunch that provides us with an online educational utopia, as much as we would like one.

So, in short, even if you are burning gigabytes learning calculus from streaming video online, you still need to pay for it.

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Against net neutrality—sort of

  1. I think you’re dealing more with privacy and censorship issues, which are also important, but you’re missing a few more distinctions.

    Net neutrality deals more with the idea of whose information receives priority. Does Bell or Rogers have the right to slow down traffic to/from YouTube or other video providers so that you are more likely to use a video service that they back and doesn’t have traffic shaping in place? I would suggest that they don’t have the right to do this and that all data packets should be treated equally in terms of priority. An equivalent argument would be that I’m allowed to shop for whatever I like at SuperStore but if I buy Kraft Dinner I need to go through one of the four Kraft Dinner lines. However, I could buy President’s Choice mac & cheese and use one of the twenty dedicated PC mac & cheese lines instead. I still have access to my choice of mac & cheese, but my service would be slower. This is, of course, absurd and you can bet that Kraft and its customers wouldn’t let that slide. This is why I’m in favour of net neutrality. It’s about having a free Internet, not free Internet access.

  2. Andrew, you set up quite the straw man when you talk of “free unlimited access to the internet”, even in the context of education. No-one is suggesting such a thing. Of course it’s fair that the telcos charge their users.

    What’s not fair is that telcos discriminate the quality of service that they’re providing based on how it’s being used. To build on one of your analogies, it would be like Manitoba Hydro preventing me from using my toaster however I wish, but being A-Ok with my microwaved atrocities.

    Further, it would be very difficult to determine what is or is not ‘educational content’ on the fly. I could argue that pretty much anything I view on the interwebs is ‘educational’ in nature.

    Your other weak assertion is that the notion that my using the internet more than average costs a telco significantly more money. The largest cost in being an ISP comes from the infrastructure, which by and large has already been established, not from any insignificant rate on data transfers themselves.

    To put things in perspective, a recent move by, I believe, Time Warner in Texas to start charging it’s customers based on how much traffic they use shows the ridiculous framing of such an argument. Time Warner has started charging its (new) customers a flat rate on data transfers beyond a certain limit. Problem is, the rate they charge is estimated to be marked up 1000-1500 percent of what the transfer -actually- costs. Ludicrous.

  3. Hi Andrew. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the definition of Net Neutrality is very well established. This isn’t a discussion of how I define it vs. how you choose to define it. It has a very concrete definition. I’m aware that quoting Wikipedia is considered gauche in some circles, but please note how well referenced the Wikipedia article is here. If you don’t like the page itself, then refer to the source material that’s been used.


    I’ll quote the first paragraph in full:

    “Network neutrality (equivalently net neutrality, Internet neutrality or simply NN) is a principle that is applied to residential broadband networks, and potentially to all networks. A neutral broadband network is one that is free of restrictions on the kinds of equipment that may be attached, on the modes of communication allowed, which does not restrict content, sites or platforms, and where communication is not unreasonably degraded by other communication streams.”

    If you still don’t get this, I’ll bring it back around to the basic level of positive and negative freedoms. You seem to think that “freedom” on the Internet is to be achieved through an absence of governmental intervention – in effect that it is a negative freedom, or a “freedom from.” While you are welcome to that opinion, it’s a common fallacy that freedom in our society is achieved through a lack of government intervention. In fact, a great many freedoms are protected through significant government intervention. They are therefore positive freedoms, or “freedom to,” and they need to be positively protected.

    You seem to have a problem with unlimited usage of bandwidth. It is a common claim by telcos that they have to stop certain high-traffic users in order to protect the ability of the average consumer to get their e-mail. It’s also an absurd claim. I’ve never said that telcos have an obligation to sell unlimited usage plans. But where they choose to sell unlimited usage plans, they cannot and should not reserve the ability to determine how that bandwidth is then used. The potential for abuse in other areas (seriously, research the issue, I can’t do it justice here) is just vast. The solution, if they are worried about the service they can provide, is simply to sell plans with traffic caps. No one is against companies’ right to do that.

    Net Neutrality is not a rallying cry against government interference. It is a demand for government intervention. You are welcome to agree or disagree with this position. But the term itself is very well established, and how you personally choose to define it will have no bearing on its objective meaning.

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  5. Incidentally, for those who prefer to learn about these issues via video, here’s some stuff to watch.

    First video immediately on this page (the page itself is a great resource) is Amber Mac, explaining Net Neutrality in a Canadian context:


    This incredibly popular and effective video explains it in an American context:


    Here are a couple of must-watch videos. Here’s U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (speaking against a bill calling for Net Neutrality) displaying what has become a famous degree of ignorance concerning how the Internet works. And quite frankly, a couple of his errors (such as the assumption that traffic-shaping is about curtailing commercial usage, rather than preventing monopolistic abuses) are on display in the piece that started this debate:


    And finally, the Internet strikes back, against Senator Ted Stevens:


  6. Hey Jeff,

    So what’s the concern that some ISP is going to use the internet for propaganda purposes? I can’t imagine any company doing that and being able to retain business.

  7. Man, explaining Net Neutrality via comments on-line isn’t easy.

    In a nutshell, Carson, the concern is that the (very few) companies that control the infrastructure of the Internet will use their control to stifle competition in terms of enterprise, information, etc. Bear in mind there are far fewer companies in control of infrastructure than you might imagine – most ISPs are contracting for usage of it.

    A technical example of this is Voice Over Internet Protocol. You think Bell is motivated to prevent the adoption of a technology that competes for all it’s long-distance phone business? You’d better believe it. If you leave it to Bell’s discretion to decide how well VOIP is going to work (since the packets are distinctly identifiable) do you want to trust to their benevolence to not abuse that opportunity?

    A more sinister example concerns the outright blocking of content or information that companies may dislike. Conspiracy theorists have a field day with this one, but there are concrete examples of this happening. Read up on the labour dispute that Telus had with its employee’s union, and the way it blocked access to their website (and a lot of other content) for all its subscribers.


    The issue is more complex than this. I’d encourage you to watch the videos I linked to (at least the first two) and get a firm understanding of what this issue is all about. To use the least technical example I can – imagine that all the highways in Canada were privately owned. Now imagine what might happen if the private owners of these highways had the right to decide, on any basis, who was allowed to drive or not drive on the highway, and at what speed. You don’t need to be a genius to see that only trucking companies that agreed to play ball could operate. That’s just one example, but there needs to be limits on how the companies that control the infrastructure of the Internet are allowed to use that control.

  8. Carson Jerema,

    I suggest you read this blog post from Professor Michael Geist:


    “So what’s the concern that some ISP is going to use the internet for propaganda purposes? I can’t imagine any company doing that and being able to retain business.” — Carson Jerema.

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