August 2017 Archives

August 2, 2017 9:44 AM

Deconstructing the Internet Giant Myths On Net Neutrality

In the last post, we noted that the Internet giants' arguments, advocating for regulation of ISPs, best describe the only market power they know--their own.  According to the Internet giants, ISPs must be regulated even though the "harms" they identify are all things that Internet giants do with their market power.

On a daily basis, we now witness numerous examples of the Internet platform giants doing the exact thing that they consistently point to as "destroying the Internet" if performed by an ISP, e.g., blocking/throttling/discriminating against content.  When Twitter was recently admonished by members of Congress for openly blocking a link to AT&T's public policy website, it was hardly a "man bites dog" story.  

Previously, we looked at the "fast lane/slow lane" argument--and made clear that this has not, nor has ever been, a practice of ISPs, but is not only the underlying business model for Google and Facebook, it is also what allowed Google to dominate the search engine market. 
In this post, we're going to look at another common "hysterical doom" prophecy advanced by the tech giants' advocacy groups.  

"The Internet Will Become Like Cable TV & Squeeze Out New Content"

In this classic argument from the net neutrality crowd, they paint a scary future world where consumers pay for Internet access the same way that they select cable channel packages today.  They claim that, not only will consumers have to pay for existing free sites, but content from new entrants will not be easy to see unless the entrant also pays for placement.  Here's a common visual aid:
net neutrality cable2.jpg
 This alleged nightmare scenario requires the usual implicit convictions that: 1) ISPs are monopolies, and 2) "[t]hey're destined to screw up the internet."  This specific scenario, however, hinges on a contradictory, yet fundamental, belief unique to Silicon Valley: no one should pay for content, yet we can sell other people's content to advertisers at significant margins.

Other People's Content

The New York Times recently published an in-depth look at Yelp's 6 year fight against Google's search discrimination activities.  In addition to its claim that Google search put Yelp's competing local review service in the "slow lane" (often pushing Yelp off the customer's screen entirely), Yelp maintains that Google "scraped" (stole) its content to post at the top of the search results.   

Google's action against Yelp provides a sense of its dominant power in the market. Yelp, itself, is a huge Internet platform, the 33rd most visited web site in the U.S. and one of the top 200 in the world.  This demonstration of Google's Internet superiority, however, is not limited to large competitors  A recent article on Outline revealed the experience of CelebrityNetWorth.com, and how Google's practice of taking other people's content has far reaching consequences for smaller content creators. 

As the Outline article explains, CelebrityNetWorth.com was an advertiser on Google and paid the firm to be placed highly in response to search queries.  Despite this--and even denying Google permission to use its content in Google's Snippets program--Google, in 2016, started scraping the company's content to post above the search results.  Immediately, traffic to CelebrityNetWorth crashed by 65% and the site's owner had to fire half of his staff of 12. Google, though, isn't alone in the way that it parasitically preys on its own content suppliers.
 
Facebook, likewise, has profited handsomely from the content of others.  In 2015, the company launched its "Instant Articles" program, which was designed to keep readers on Facebook's site for longer.  According to the New York Times, many large publishers, by then dependent on Facebook for referrals to their sites, "agreed to the deal, despite concerns that their participation could eventually undermine their own businesses."

These concerns were not misplaced.  A year later, traffic to the news sites from Facebook had seen double digit declines of as much as 50%.  Recently, Inc. noted that Google and Facebook now have more ad revenue than every newspaper, magazine, and radio station combined.  In response to the rapid growth by these two Silicon Valley behemoths, news content creators recently banded together to seek an antitrust exemption in a last-ditch effort to fight the platform companies' predation with market power of their own. 

Could ISPs Make the Internet Like Cable TV?

It's worth noting that proponents of this dystopia never explain, step-by-step, how the ISP would be able to offer/sell such a service, much less--given the likely market responses--how this service could ever be profitable.  To better understand the likely consumer response, here is a quick review of virtual private network ("VPN") services.

A VPN service allows users to route their traffic, via a private, secure "tunnel" to a 3rd party server. The ISP does not know, nor can it control, the destination of a user's traffic after it is sent to a VPN.  Likewise, the user's destination point can only "see" the IP address of the VPN's server--which makes VPNs very popular among certain Internet users, such as those of Netflix
 
Although the best VPN services are used to protect user privacy, they are not usually free.   But, if you care more about avoiding the "net neutrality nightmares," than you do for your own privacy, Google's got your solution--because of course they always do.

In addition to the world's dominant search engine, the world's dominant mobile operating system, and the world's dominant online translation service, Google also has a dominant position in the web browser market--with its Chrome browser having a desktop share more than 4x higher than its closest competitor (Mozilla).   
chrome_browser4.png 

If you need verification of Google's dominance, go ahead and ask one of your kids what web browser their school computer must use.And, it just so happens that Google offers, as a Chrome browser extension, a "free" VPN service to Chrome users.    

What does that mean?  Well, any attempt by an ISP to adopt the "Internet access as cable TV strategy" would only succeed in making its Internet access even less profitable than its real cable TV service.  Keep in mind that while a D.C. Circuit decision makes clear an ISPs ability to offer a "curated" service under Title II regulation, no ISP has yet to offer such a service. 

*    *    *

While the Internet giants continue to actively promote an outdated myth, they know the truth;  consumers' should actually fear should the tech giants given that they have already turned the Internet into something a lot more like cable than cable.  While, the average cable customer watches just 17 channels; of the top 50 U.S. websites, almost none offer content and an advertising platform not already owned by an existing Silicon Valley Internet platform giant.  

These Internet platform owners are also some of the very richest people on the planet (#2 (but #1 last week) Jeff Bezos of Amazon, #5 Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, and #'s 11/12 Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google).  In terms of financial clout (market capitalization), the 4 largest tech giants are more than 3x larger than the 4 largest ISPs.

ISPs v Tech Giants Mkt Cap.jpg 
This dominant economic power over Internet media has spillover effects in traditional media.  Last week, the media bias watchdog group FAIR reported that its "review of 190 articles from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Bezos-owned Washington Post over the past year paints a picture of almost uniformly uncritical-ofttimes boosterish-coverage." The same article notes that none of the largest papers has written any critical, investigative pieces on Amazon/Bezos in almost 2 years.

Thankfully, though this general lack of scrutiny--by journalists employed by papers dependent on the biggest platforms--is not complete, even at the organizations criticized by FAIR.  Just this past weekend, the Post ran an excellent piece, asking if Amazon was not becoming "too big?"  Likewise, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal--a publication not known for its skepticism toward big business--recently asked if it was not too late to control Google, Facebook, and Amazon?     

The evolution of the Internet and the ubiquity of VPN service have rendered the "Internet will be like cable" nightmare as about as scary as "the call is coming from inside the house" line sounds to anyone who came of age after 2000.  No, the scary story is not the one the Internet platform giants are shoving down your throat; it's the one they are hiding from the Internet consuming public.