On Government’s Use of Force, and Net Neutrality
Rock-Garden Detail Tenjuan Temple (天授庵), Kyoto Japan -- Tenjuan Temple (天授庵) -- Copyright 2017 Jeffrey Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/ -- This photo is licensed to the public under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Nikon D4 + Nikkor 24mm f/1.4 — 1/320 sec, f/4.5, ISO 400 — map & image datanearby photos
Rock-Garden Detail
Tenjuan Temple (天授庵), Kyoto Japan

A thought process:

  1. I like cookies.
  2. I love free cookies.
  3. Gee, it would sure be nice if cookies were always free, don't you think?
  4. The government should compel, by force of law, bakeries to give cookies away for free!!

At what point do you think the thought process crossed the line? If you like cookies, I bet you agree with #2 and #3, so why not agree with #4? Why not compel bakeries to give cookies away?

By their very definition, laws and regulations compel people to act a certain way, whether they like it or not. It removes their right to do as they please. This is often a good thing; I'm glad that society removed your right to take my car whenever you feel like it, for example. But as the cookie example shows, forcing someone else to do something that benefits you is not always what a good and just society calls for. We show restraint and consideration in where we invoke government power unto others, as at the same time we expect restraint and consideration in government's intrusion into our own lives (especially if we make the occasional batch of cookies ourselves).

So, when contemplating laws and regulations (and taxes, for that matter), where society will use force to compel behavior, it's not enough to ask Do I like this idea?, or Would it be good if everyone did this? or Will more people benefit than be harmed?.

No, you must also ask Is this sufficiently compelling to force it upon people who don't share my opinion?

So that brings me to the subject of net neutrality, and the many discussions of it I've seen.

First let me say that this blog post is not an argument for or against net neutrality. However, this blog post is an argument against discussions that don't consider whether it's compelling enough to require under threat of force.

Take, for example, the occasionally-funny comic The Oatmeal, and his article on net neutrality, where he talks about all the bad things internet service providers could and would do if left unregulated. He gets a bit melodramatic, but his points are completely valid.

It's as if he's talking about what would happen if restaurants could set their own prices for food. He'd make the valid point that since some dishes would cost more than others, you'd be faced with the unpleasant task of considering price when making your selection, instead of just being able to choose based upon your current mood. Or, he'd correctly point out, every dish in a particular restaurant might be priced too high for you to afford, so you'd be effectively barred from eating there! This would be really unpleasant! The answer, he would then point out obviously, is to require restaurants to set all meals to a single government-mandated price. There, problem solved!

Why isn't there a law requiring this? The vast majority of humans would benefit from this... only the restaurants (which are not even people!) would have their rights taken away. That seems to be a small price to pay for such widespread benefit, no? No. That's not how a just society works. The idea that all food is priced equally might be nice on the surface, but not enough to compel people to do it if they don't want.

The restaurant business is very different from the ISP business, so the analogy goes only so far; I'm not attempting to equate the restaurant business with that of ISPs, but merely using it as an exaggerated example to illustrate the salient point that any discussion of a law/regulation/tax should include the recognition that it's the application of force by the government to restrict others. The end result might be exactly what society needs, but it shouldn't be done without recognizing that it's being done.

(The previous paragraph was clarified a bit in response to the first few comments)

So, when discussing the use of force to require internet service providers to run their business in a particular way, please also discuss whether it's good and right for society to use force in that way.

Maybe that discussion will end up with yes for any number of reasons, or no, but at this point I've never seen the discussion actually happen.

Even Seth Godin, who has long been a bastion of common-sense insight in a sea of misdirection, in his comments on net neutrality looks only at how some individuals might be hurt if net neutrality is lost, completely failing to consider how society might be hurt if it uses its force without due consideration.


All 9 comments so far, oldest first...

In general I agree with the points you made, however I do think there’s a very important difference when it comes to Net Neutrality: whereas I have dozens of restaurants to chose from, most consumers have one or two options for broadband.

I would *love* to have an open market for broadband — with as many choices for an ISP as I have restaurants for dinner — but that’s not the current world. In that world, I don’t think NN would be that important.

But given we’re already neck deep in regulatory capture, I don’t think the right option is to give even more leverage to the big players.

Whether restaurants or monopolies, recognizing that laws and regulations are a form of force wielded by government/society should be part of the discussion. Your pointing out of the difference between restaurants and almost-monopolies would be a good argument for wielding the force, should that aspect actually enter the discussion. Getting that to happen is the whole point of my article.

As to the contention that such force is called for because there are few choices in ISPs, the devil’s advocate in me asks “so what?” If a town has only one doughnut shop, does the scarcity of choice in doughnuts excuse what would otherwise be considered overbearing regulation (e.g. you must be open from 3am, and must provide free sprinkles)?

If you answer “no, that’s silly”, then I have to ask you to explain why you think it applies to ISPs, instead of just taking for granted that the listener agrees with you that ISPs provide a basic human service that we as a society agree should be easily available to all, comparable to utilities like clean water and electricity. I’d tend to agree with you, but it’s not a tenant so universally held that you can beg the question. —Jeffrey

— comment by Bill on November 25th, 2017 at 1:18pm JST (2 weeks, 2 days ago) comment permalink

I take it you’re against net neutrality? I find that really interesting, because I’ve yet to find a compelling analysis for why it should be removed. Most technically-minded people seem to be universally for net neutrality.

I think I’d be OK with it being removed if there were true competition – the type that keeps restaurants competitive, to go back to your analogy. I care a bit less about the cost of restautant food because I can and do cook a lot of things on my own, so even if restaurants priced themselves to astronomical levels, I wouldn’t starve. But in the USA there’s very limited competition among providers, and unfortunately the internet has become too important for me to say that I’ll just live without it. Because there’s a lack of competition, I don’t believe that the companies wouldn’t put up “tolls” on various websites, or charge others… it would give them too much control over what people can be exposed to.

Ultimately, the internet is society’s, is it not? The basics of the internet were developed by the government, and much of the current infrastructure – despite being owned by private companies – was funded at least in part by public money. The private companies have also used aggressive tactics to prevent private communities from creating public internet services even when they wanted to.

I’d definitely be interested in reading detailed thoughts of yours supporting the abolishment of net neutrality, though. You know more about the internet and internet services than most.

I was careful to neither argue for nor against, because I am truly not informed enough to take an educated stand. At first blush when I hear about the subject, I have a split emotional response. On one hand I’m aghast at what I’ve heard has already happened when ISPs are left to their evil ways, but on the other my gut tells me it’s an ISPs choice to throttle Netflix if that’s what they want to do to their customers. (Despite what many may tell you, access to Netflix is not a basic human right.)

One thing I see a clear reason to use force is to require ISPs to inform customers of their practices, not only in relationship to bandwidth, but in how they might modify traffic that gets passed through them, and how they collect and use data. From what I gather, people would freak the hell out a lot more if they understood that than they would be upset about slower Netflix. —Jeffrey

— comment by David K. on November 25th, 2017 at 1:53pm JST (2 weeks, 2 days ago) comment permalink

I appreciate that your post is trying to foster dialog about net neutrality. However, as a previous commenter noted, it’s hard not to interpret your own view as opposed. This is not a criticism, but an honest observation. Whether intended or not, the frequent references to ‘use of force’, ‘application of force’, and ‘threatening of force’ indicate a certain libertarian view of laws and regulation.

I have no doubt that you’re well-read on the topic and nuances of net neutrality, so I won’t rehash the details here. However, I will point out that in general, regulation is most often needed when market forces are ineffective. If we all had our choice of broadband provider, net neutrality regulations probably wouldn’t be necessary to begin with. Unfortunately competitive forces are nearly absent in the US broadband market. Even using a relatively weak criteria of 25Mbps for ‘broadband’, 97% of the US has two or fewer providers. 78% have 1 or none (https://goo.gl/LSZUAH).

To make matters worse, most ISPs compete directly with many of the services they facilitate. For instance, the actions of Comcast and Verizon against Netflix in 2014 can easily be seen as a preemptive strike against a competitor that was enabling cable cord-cutting. Without net neutrality protections, there is nothing to stop Comcast from throttling Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, and and the like to protect their own content business (or syphoning off revenue through hidden tolls).

Without any reasonable prospect of improving ISP competitiveness with new infrastructure, it is clear to me that clear regulations like net neutrality are critical for protecting consumers and the internet as we know it.

I’ll grant that I laid “use of force” on a bit thick 🙂 , but it’s not in relation to this particular issue (net neutrality), which, as I noted in a previous comment, I truly have no decided stance. What you’ve probably sensed is my default stance on any subject is “do not limit others’ rights unless a reason is so compelling that it overrides their rights”, and I’m still in the evaluation process.

By their very nature, all laws, regulations, and taxes are things that remove rights, so I think it’s important for all taking part in the discourse to acknowledge that, and hence the heavy use in my article. So very often, on all such topics, I see discussions only from the “I do/don’t like this” viewpoint.

Sort of off topic, but to give more of a sense where I’m coming from, along the same lines I’m uncomfortable during a trial when people play judge and rule based upon what they think is good or moral, as opposed to judging based upon what is legal. “Good” and “moral” come into play when making the laws in the first place. Another example is when talking about taxes, people talk about raising or lowering, instead of what’s fair. Raising and lowering speak to the emotion of the transition, as opposed to making an attempt to implement what is right and just. I realize that this will never change because taxes are a political tool far more than a just payment for one’s place in society, but the lack of a logical foundation is still frustrating.

Anyway, back to your other comments, they’re well presented and make a compelling argument, but you still beg the question that “protecting the internet as we know it” is sufficient justification. Yes we like it and yes we rely on it, but the vast majority of it has come into being due to private business. Who are we to tell them what to do? Maybe it’s gotten to the point that it’s considered to be an indispensable part of the social fabric and so should all be taken over by the government and provided to all for free? Or something in between? I think this should all be part of the discussion. —Jeffrey

— comment by Keith on November 25th, 2017 at 4:21pm JST (2 weeks, 2 days ago) comment permalink

I think the main problem i have with your restaurant analogy is that you focus on the prices, but with net neutrality i’m more worried about the content.
I’m worried that the form of my connection to the internet would be too boxed in. It’s one thing that with the price model people have suggested, i’d have to choose because i have limited funds. In this case facebook would probably be cheaper or at least more compelling to access than say your webpage, or mine, robbing the internet of some of its wonders. However, different parts of the internet doesn’t cost different prices for the ISP to connect me to. The price changes are artificial.

Also, as others above have talked about, what if my ISP doesn’t want to sell me access to something (like netflix, because it rivals their TV business)? What if i only have one ISP to choose from (as is the case)?

If there is only one restaurant selling me food, i have no choice but to eat there, regardless of the ingredients. And i think that we SHOULD regulate those ingredients.

(I’m from Sweden, since you’re asking. Apologies for any grammatical errors, etc).

— comment by Bjerre on November 25th, 2017 at 9:23pm JST (2 weeks, 2 days ago) comment permalink

Your example of cookies or restaurants is a classic single consumer purchase view. But the net is a utility. How about electricity as an example – your voltage depends on your ability to pay. Or access to attractive Japanese cycle routes – your maximum speed and distance depends on your ability to pay. Or water supply – the purity of the water depends on your ability to pay. Or health care – The quality of care depends on your ability to pay (your answer to the latter would be revealing).

Wise decisions were made early in the history of the internet, precisely because it was not a consumer commodity. I guess that time is very much past us. By the way I write as a grateful user of your excellent LR plugins and as a somewhat amazed observer of your cycling exploits.

I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make… you don’t get electricity at all unless you pay. You don’t get water at all unless you pay. (Health care in the US…. that you can at least get to some extent without paying.)

My article doesn’t attempt to debate forms of government (socialism vs. capitalism)… it’s attempting to remind that when society passes a law, any law, it’s taking something away from someone else, so let’s be sure to keep that as part of the discussion.

Seeing a complete lack of this in discussions about net neutrality, even from people that I consider to be normally well balanced and unemotional, is what finally prompted me to write about this. —Jeffrey

— comment by David McAughtry on November 26th, 2017 at 9:21pm JST (2 weeks, 1 day ago) comment permalink

I think the point is this (in reference to your reply about getting electricity, water, healthcare) that yes, you have to pay for the utilities you use, but the electric company doesn’t control the amount of electricity you can consume or limit it based on the appliances you are using. And the water company doesn’t control how much water you use for washing dishes or taking a shower. The utility just functions and provides you with the basic service and you can use it how ever you want as long as you pay for it. However, rates are regulated and the utility companies do make quite a profit even being regulated as they are. Your comment that “the vast majority of it has come into being due to private business” is correct, but it’s also true that any innovation has only come from the need to create a product that gives them the profit making edge over their competitors. I know it’s a business and the point of business is to make a profit but, just like electricity, water and phone service, the internet is now an integral part of daily life, not just an entertainment source. Nothing should be free. But, when you have towns that have been prevented by legislation lobbied for by the internet providers from forming their own local, city owned internet infrastructure to provide for their citizens then it really doesn’t say to me that any kind of free market competition exists at all. These are places where business will not go as they aren’t profitable enough to them to warrant the investment.

So really, it seems to me that it should be provided as a basic utility service. I’m willing to allow that perhaps paid tiers of guaranteed bandwidth could be service plans, like what exists today. But it needs to be regulated so that we can all have equal access to at least the same quality basic connection all over the country. With Net Neutrality gone, it’s not at all unrealistic to imagine a scenario where for instance your blog, if it’s not hosted on the service providers blog service, could have its traffic limited or its bandwidth severely restricted unless you paid more or switched to their service just to make sure it can be found on all the search engines and that it loads at a decent rate. Further, I don’t think the infrastructure should be privately owned at all. Only the companies that provide the content should be. Make it a level playing field like the national highway system is in the United States. It was paid for by the government and look how business profits from it. Internet should be the same thing. The only reason that net neutrality is going to be killed is because it will make someone a lot of money, and that’s all that matters, to some at least- not implying that of you. (I will add that some will argue that the National Highways are a mess and falling apart, but that’s only because of partisan politics that place the infrastructure of the country below politics, not above as it ought to be.)

So to your point that when a law is passed, it’s taking something away form someone else, that’s true. However, ideally laws should be passed to benefit the majority of the citizens. And in the case of the United States, isn’t it supposed to be a country by the people, for the people, of the people? Seems killing net neutrality takes away from the majority of the citizens of the country in favor of the few. And I know that corporations have been able to get themselves classified as “people” but really, are they? The only thing being taken from the corporations by keeping net neutrality is their ability to make even more money (and let’s face it, they aren’t doing badly in their current form), at the expense of the majority. I am all for capitalism and the free market but the needs of the actual citizens need to prevail over the needs of business.

On a different note, I want to say that I really enjoy your blog. I found it way back when I was doing a search on Lightroom Export Quality and came across your post about it. As a frequent traveler to Japan, your posts make me realize how much of Kyoto I have yet to explore! I will say, given most of your content, I was surprised to find this post. But it’s a good topic that needs to be discussed. It’s late for me and I’m tired (West Coast, USA) and this isn’t the place for siting reference articles and so on, but again, an important and necessary topic to start a dialogue about. How is Net Neutrality in Japan? I’ve only ever had good experiences there, granted it’s been renting portable wi-fi routers to carry with me, but I’ve always had amazing coverage even in mountain region where I expected the service would never reach. And always fast! Thanks!

— comment by David Beall on November 27th, 2017 at 6:40pm JST (2 weeks ago) comment permalink

You are of course right, that regulations are a kind of force as in enforcement and that we should think carefully before implementing them.

I’ve found two points in your comments to comments that I would like to comment:

“Despite what many may tell you, access to Netflix is not a basic human right.” I disagree. The right to access information is a human right and is a cornerstone of democracy. The internet has developed into a media like a big mix between a library (Wikipedia) and a newsagents. I must have the right to read and watch whatever I want.

“By their very nature, all laws, regulations, and taxes are things that remove rights, …” This is a one sided view. For example the Magna Carta did remove rights from the king, but at the same time it gave rights to the people that heavily outweighed that what the king lost. The point is to find a balance. On one side we have providers who are at the same time content providers and in whos interest it is to destort traffic in their favour. On the other hand we have the consumers right to information and the right of start-ups to have equal chance to access the market.

The pesty little thing is finding the right balance.

The fact that “laws remove rights” is just one facet of what laws are, highlighted in this article because it’s an important facet that seems to have been forgotten, while its flip side (“all laws give rights”) seems to be the only thing anyone discussed. Of course it’s a balance, but you can’t balance opposing sides of an argument if you’re ignoring half. About Netflix, I wasn’t referring to vague “information”, I was referring to a specific company that provides a specific service. If you think that specific service is a basic human right, we’ll have to agree to disagree. (That being said, if someone took my Netflix away, we might face a Michael Dougless Falling Downesque scenario 🙂 ) —Jeffrey

— comment by Daniel on November 28th, 2017 at 12:30am JST (2 weeks ago) comment permalink

It is often instructive to turn the question around.

If an adult decides to put some chemical in their body, be it heroin or LSD or cocaine or whatever, is it in the government’s compelling interest to “use force” to prevent it? Either you agree that the government can and should “use force” to prevent adults from imbibing whatever substances they like, or you are in favor of total legalization of all drugs.

Do you think an adult has a right to receive money in return for sex? Does the government have a right to “use force” to prevent two adults from engaging in a private transaction? Either you agree that the government should “use force” to prevent some private contracts between consenting adults, or you are in favor of a blanket legalization prostitution.

One could go on.

My point is simply that “the government should only use force when absolutely necessary” argument suddenly becomes more problematic when it’s turned upon things we think shouldn’t be allowed.

It’s not problematic at all… these are exactly the questions we should be asking. In many cases the answer is “yes, the government should use force”, and in many case it’s “no”, but I think it’s important to remember that all laws are removing rights from someone. —Jeffrey

— comment by Zak on November 28th, 2017 at 5:09pm JST (1 week, 6 days ago) comment permalink

The flip side of “regulation” is “protection”. For example, when the government “forces” companies to provide safe food, they’re also protecting me from getting sick. By removing the “right” of corporations to put poison in foods, the government favours my “right” to be healthy.

Regulation is needed when there’s a “natural monopoly”, such as trains, water, electricity, telephone, or Internet.

Here are a few stories I’ve come across:
Net non-neutrality in Portugal
Yontan Zunger on Twitter about net neutrality
Comcast says “just trust us” after removing net neutrality pledge

Absolutely, about that flip side. The whole point of my post is to recognize that there are two sides. I’m not sure that internet service is natural monopoly in many places now, but anyway, it takes more than simply being the only choice to merit monopoly-level regulations. There was a time when Tesla was the only company to offer an all-electric car, so should the government step in to control their pricing? A Tesla is not a basic human need, so no. (Maybe some day Tesla will be so popular and so relied on by a petroleum-starved society that their years of providing desirable innovation will be punished with monopoly-level regulation, but it’s not here yet.) —Jeffrey

— comment by PeterL on December 2nd, 2017 at 5:01am JST (1 week, 3 days ago) comment permalink
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