I watched this video because, while I am in favour of Net Neutrality, and concerned about the impending repeal of Net Neutrality regulations in the United States, I consciously try to avoid being stuck in an echo chamber of similar views, and try to expose myself to opposing viewpoints as well; particularly when such opposing viewpoints are held by a figure in a community that I respect and identify with (in Bryan’s case, the Linux and free software community).
I found the video interesting and well-presented, but I didn’t find Bryan’s arguments convincing. I decided to write this post to respond to two of the arguments Bryan makes in particular.
The first argument I wanted to address was about the fact that some of the largest companies that are lobbying to keep Net Neutrality rules in place – Google, Netflix, and Microsoft – are also supporters of DRM. Bryan argues, that since these companies support DRM, which is a threat to a free and open internet, we should not take their support for Net Neutrality (which they claim to also be motivated by a desire for a free and open internet) at face value; rather, they only support Net Neutrality regulations because they have a financial incentive for doing so (namely, they run high-bandwidth streaming and similar services that are likely to be first in line to be throttled in a world without Net Neutrality protections).
I don’t dispute that companies like Google, Netflix, and Microsoft support Net Neutrality for selfish reasons. Yes, the regulations affect their bottom line, at least in the short term. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t also good reasons for supporting Net Neutrality. Many organizations – like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, whom I have no reason to suspect to be beholden to the pocketbooks of large tech companies – have argued that Net Neutrality is, in fact, important for a free and open internet. That Netflix supports it for a different reason, doesn’t make that any less the case.
I also think that comparing DRM and the lack of Net Neutrality in this way confuses the issue. Yes, both are threats to a free and open internet, but I think they are qualitatively very different.
To explain why, let’s model an instance of communication over the internet as being between two parties: a sender or producer of the communication, and its receiver or consumer. DRM exists to give the producer control over how the communication is consumed. There are many problems with DRM, but at least it is not intended to interfere with communication in cases where the producer and consumer agree on the terms (e.g. the price, or lack thereof) of the exchange1.
By contrast, in a world without Net Neutrality rules, an intermediary (such as an ISP) can interfere with (such as by throttling) communication between two parties even when the two parties agree on the terms of the communication. This potentially opens the door to all manner of censorship, such as interfering with the communications of political activists. I see this as being a much greater threat to free communication than DRM.
(I also find it curious that Bryan seems to focus particularly on the standardization of DRM on the Web as being objectionable, rather than DRM itself. Given that DRM exists regardless of whether or not it’s standardized on the Web, the fact that it is standardized on the Web is a good thing, because it enables the proprietary software that implements the DRM to be confined to a low-privilege sandbox in the user’s browser, rather than having “full run of the system” as pre-standardization implementations of DRM like Adobe Flash did. See this article for more on that topic.)
The second argument Bryan makes that I wanted to address was that Net Neutrality rules mean the U.S. government being more involved in internet communications, such as by monitoring communications to enforce the rules.
I don’t buy this argument for two reasons. First, having Net Neutrality rules in place does not mean that internet communications need to be proactively monitored to enforce the rules. The role of the government could very well be limited to investigating and corrections violations identified and reported by users (or organizations acting on behalf of users).
But even we assume there will be active monitoring of internet communications to enforce the rules, I don’t see that as concerning. Let’s not kid ourselves: the U.S. government already monitors all internet communications it can get its hands on; axing Net Neutrality rules won’t cause them to stop. Moreover, users already have a way to protect the content of their communications (and, if desired, even the metadata, using tools like Tor) from being monitored: encryption. Net Neutrality rules don’t change that in any way.
In sum, I enjoyed watching Bryan’s video and I always appreciate opposing viewpoints, but I didn’t find the arguments that Net Neutrality is not a big deal convincing. For the time being, I continue to believe that the impending rollback of U.S. Net Neutrality rules is a big deal.
1. I am thinking here of cases where the content being communicated is original content, that is, content originated by the producer. I am, of course, aware, that DRM can and does interfere with the ability of two parties to communicate content owned by a third party, such as sending a movie to a friend. To be pedantic, DRM can even interfere with communication of original content in cases where such content is mistakenly identified as belonging to a third party. I’m not saying DRM is a good thing – I’m just saying it doesn’t rise to being the same level of threat to free communication as not having Net Neutrality protections does.