Repealing Net Neutrality: A Dissenting Opinion

I must preface that I am not a certified or self-trained expert in computer networking, the Internet, or Information-Technology (IT). The following views are mine and have been arrived at by listening to/reading up on the issue of net neutrality from partisan and non-partisan sources. Well-informed and fact-based views from experts on the subject are most welcome and highly sought.

The Trump administration placed net neutrality on the chopping block and AjitPai did the honors by repealing it. The issue created a large furor in the world of Internet and social media with divergent explanations floated by both sides.

Conservatives and right-wingers supported the repeal stating that the government shouldn’t impose itself on service providers and get to have a say in their operations. Folks on the left claimed that the Internet is no longer free and that loss of net-neutrality will usher in tiered tariffs and throttling/blocking of web content at the whim of the service providers (ISP).

It’s increasingly difficult to take a purely scientific approach towards technical issues in a culture where the pettiest things are used to smear the opposition and play partisan political games. With much effort, I have attempted to put aside politics and look merely into the nerdy details of this extremely obtuse concept of net-neutrality.

The premise of net neutrality hinges on the aphorism that the Internet/Web (* a nuanced, yet significant, distinction between the two will be discussed briefly later) is a public utility, hence, should be made available and accessible to everyone equally, just like electricity, cooking gas, and water. Corporations are profit-driven and heartless, as a result, the government should get involved in the markets and make sure that everyone gets these utilities and nobody is left in the lurch.

So, is the Internet a public utility?

The science of economics describes two characteristics for a service to qualify as public utility: non-excludability (people cannot be denied the product regardless of whether they have paid) and non-rivalry (consumption by one doesn’t reduce availability for others).

The Internet certainly doesn’t meet the non-excludability criterion, in that people who don’t pay for the service don’t get to use it. Major cities across the US have set up public Wi-Fi in a bid to provide Internet to all, but such “access-for-all” isn’t standard across the vast majority of the nation.

Thankfully, the Internet doesn’t fail to meet the non-rivalry criteria. A huge slug of new users might overwhelm existing service capabilities transiently, but additional hardware can be added to accommodate the growing demand. Thus, for all practical purposes, the Internet qualifies the non-rivalry criterion.

In summary, the Internet isn’t a public utility, at least not now.

But I would like to make additional depositions to make my case well-rounded and cogent.

The Internet was conceived in the 1960s as an effort on part of the US federal government to transfer data over foolproof communication networks run by computers. What started as a nascent and clunky project involving huge machines and laughable transfer speeds evolved into a means of global networking, telephony, and information transfer at incredibly fast speeds. This evolution was majorly spearheaded by researchers at several government agencies from different parts of the world. In the 1990s, the Internet was opened up to private players for commercial usage. Thus, the Internet has been built and developed using taxpayer money. Also, of note is that the Internet is a decentralized space that no one has hegemony over.

Now, over to the Web. Thrown around carelessly and interchangeably to describe the Internet, the Web is actually different from the Internet. The Web is an application developed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, during his time at CERN – a multi-government funded organization – to access documents, pictures, videos and other files on the Internet that are marked in a distinguished manner. It’s one of the several ways to access stuff on the Internet and communicate with one another. By corollary, the Web was thus crafted by an individual using public’s (taxpayer)money. It’s this little, yet extremely important, corner of the Internet that this brouhaha is all about.

ISPs function as middlemen connecting end users to the Internet space, mainly through the World Wide Web or the Web or WWW. Neither did they create the Internet or the WWW, nor do they maintain it.

Effectively, private corporations are helping us access a digital space that was created using public’s money. Moreover, the creators of this space – whether it be governmental agencies or individuals – in all their largesse decided to open up the space for commercial use and allow people to freely (not to be conflated with ‘for free’) use the space.

Over the years, the Web has grown from an information archive and emailing medium to a source of employment, a means of starting and running a business, a tool to reach out to people across the world, a place to broadcast yourself and your work, and much more. While the Web doesn’t qualify as public utility, it does serve as one of the few ways by which people in first countries can augment the socioeconomic momentum of the Industrial Revolution using digital technology and by which people in third countries can change their destinies by creating an app, or by engaging in commerce across borders, or educating themselves for free.

Repealing net neutrality gives ISPs a kind of hegemony, not over the Web or the Internet, but over what we consume from this public-utility-hopeful. While larger corporations can find a way around by paying the large sums of money ISPs might demand for a certain degree of visibility on their respective services, it is almost difficult for an entrepreneur or a blogger or an independent journalist to pay the same sum for the same degree of visibility on those services.

“Take your business over to Facebook or on some other social media outlet and you won’t be discriminated against,” one might argue. Not quite true! Social media have tailored news feeds and show you what you have already seen. It will be difficult to market your business on fronts that are slowly devolving into echo chambers. Also, one cannot be certain that social media giants are unbiased in the way they deliver content, as has been the case with Facebook, which was accused of manipulating the ‘trending’ feature to suit their political leaning.

The gravity of the problem is further compounded when one factors in the regional monopolies that ISPs enjoy in the US. Competition is scarce because of the cost-intensive nature of running cables under the streets and setting up hardware. Overbuilders (ISPs using existing hardware and cables to provide an alternative) can increase competition, but financial feasibility and ROI of such ventures are pretty dim. In this regard, the Web certainly functions like a public utility and requires some sort of accountability on part of the ISP.

There is also a technical angle to the importance of net neutrality, which is lucidly explained here.

Repeal of net-neutrality should get everyone disconcerted, especially, small business owners, entrepreneurs, innovators, and the most vulnerable – alternative news media outlets, especially the ones with unsavory views – many of which tend to be on the political right. Cheering along to your own demise because your guy did it is the gold standard of intellectual indolence and buffoonery.

I would like to once again post face that I am not a certified or self-trained expert in matters of the Internet, computing, or networking and would welcome fact-based feedback on this subject.

Having said that, I can tell you two things with certainty: 1. Capitalize the first letter of Internet and Web and place the definite article the before these words when referencing them; and 2. We use the Web to get on the Internet to do stuff.


A Conservative-Libertarian

Saurabh Malkar
Saurabh Malkar
An ex-dentist and a business graduate who is greatly influenced by American conservatism and western values. Having born and brought up in a non-western, third world country, he provides an ‘outside-in’ view on western values. As a budding writer and analyst, he is very much stoked about western culture and looks forward to expound and learn more. Mr. Malkar receives correspondence at saurabh.malkar[at] To read his 140-character commentary on Twitter, follow him at @saurabh_malkar