The furore over net neutrality between the FCC, the American public and several broadband networks, is breaking new ground for the banal, as Comcast accuses Netflix of trying to change regulations to suit their business.
Well indeed. When businesses engage in politics it is for their own benefit. Even when businesses engage in charity it is for their own benefit. Businesses exist to make money, and that isn’t merely about providing goods and services, but creating the right environment to do that.
Not that the other side to this debate hasn’t been equally dim, with some insisting that the internet is now an essential utility, in their lexicon something akin to a human right. It is easy enough to demand in unctuous tones that healthcare, education or some other good should be free, or at least cheap. The question is, free or cheap for whom?
Jim Cicconi, an employee of telecoms company AT&T, is right to compare the internet to the postal service. Everyone has a right to post a letter, but is anybody obliged to carry that letter for you? Businesses are generally too fond of money to turn down willing custom, but then there remains the question of price. Are broadband companies obliged to provide cheap broadband?
This is not to say Comcast critics haven’t got a point. Aside from the information available online, there are many public services and job opportunities that cannot be accessed without a network connection. It is not an exaggeration to say that the internet is as necessary a service as water or electricity, but even water and electricity cost somebody something to generate.
For Americans price is a particularly sore point in this regard, with US residents paying more than $4 for every mbps of internet, according to Ookla. This is just under half what the British pay, and more than three times what the Germans are charged. There are also concerns about potential monopolies of network infrastructure in the States, as outlined in detail by Nilay Patel of the Verge.
In part this is simply a conflict of interests. Broadband companies and content providers want to make as much money as they can, and consumers want to pay as little as possible while obtaining the best service. As with all trades, there is a compromise to be made somewhere in the middle.
While it’s hard to feel sorry for the keyboard warrior who just wants to watch House of Cards with a sharper image, governments should safeguard a basic service so that nobody is excluded from public life. The FCC case will be a significant moment in defining that minimum for the next few years, making it crucial they ignore those crying wolf on both sides.