Is Net Neutrality Really the “Right” Debate for Consumers?

With the worldwide web turning 25 last month, I have been thinking about the topic of net neutrality a lot.

Net neutrality has been an ongoing debate for almost as long as the Web itself. If the basis of the net neutrality debate is “open access to all information equally and without discrimination,” it is not hard to align on why we do not want our Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or governments determining the sites and/or speeds to those sites on our behalf.

However, how naive are we if we believe this is the only consideration of access to open information?

Although this might seem counterintuitive, we don’t want open access to all information. How could we possibly consume all the information on the Web without some very extensive cataloging and filtering?

What is this – we don’t get open access to information? Of course not. The information you are presented is controlled – not by your ISP (at least in most countries) – but by the likes of Google and the e-commerce sites you visit. Let me categorize all these sites as “Google” for simplicity’s sake.

So, am I saying Google is evil? Absolutely not. Google is clearly doing a brilliant job of pleasing its customers. You and I are just not the customer of Google. The customers of Google are the many corporations and organizations who are paying Google to determine what you see when you search the Web.

Continuing with this thinking, am I saying that the businesses who are advertising through Google are evil? Again, absolutely not. They are doing what we are asking them to do. They are subsidizing Google on your behalf so that you have “free and open access to information.” In return for this service, they are filtering the content on the Web into a subset which is – at least in theory – targeted to what we want to see and certainly filtered to a more consumable list.

How did this happen? We hate paying for stuff. This is something that behavioural economists love to study and broadly call, “the pain of paying” – the phenomena where we will take inferior products if we don’t have to pull out our wallets – physically or electronically. Let’s face it, we love stuff that is “free.” Combine this with the original philosophy of Tim Berners-Lee – that access to information on the Web should be free – and we have a powerful ecosystem that leads to a very biased view of the information we see.

This model of someone else paying for our access to content is hardly new. The origins of radio, television and print media were all based on free content – subsidized by companies who in return get to monopolize some of your time through pushing their own content through those channels.

This raises the question … Does this curated view of the information we see on the Internet is wrong? I guess the answer to this question is a very personal one. Much like broadcast radio is struggling, Netflix and Hulu are disrupting how we pay for and access television programming and Pandora Internet Radio is getting people to pay subscriptions for access to personally curated music without advertisements, the answer is really up in the air.

In any case, my final question for this post is … Would we be better off paying a recurring amount of money (which likely wouldn’t need to be a lot based on sheer numbers of people) to see information that is targeted to our needs, wants and desires instead of the companies who are trying to sell to those based on their needs, wants and desires?

Although the obvious answer to this question is “no way,” I think it might be easier if we thought about how we could actually make money in this model. What if you had to pay a subscription to use sites on the Internet, but in return for your reviews, loyalty or other incentives, these sites actually paid you back? This idea is not without precedence. One very successful example is Dropbox who give more “free” space in return for referring friends. Outside the digital experience, this is exactly the experience of Costco.

To close, the idea paying for controlling information to be biased to our own goals is obviously a complex issue, but it is also a topic worthy of discussion. A lot of discussion.

’til next time … Kirk, out.

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