Why Net Neutrality Matters
Almost two decades ago now, my old friend Steve Bruhn used to say that our country “socializes costs and privatizes gains.” I thought at first that he was overstating it by making it such a general statement, but over the course of time, I figured out he was right.
Much of the time, what ends up happening in our country is we, as taxpayers, end up paying to develop new products, and then end up paying a premium to use the products afterward. I got a taste of this first-hand about 10 years ago when I was sitting in the lobby at a very well-known cancer-research hospital where my dad was being treated. My father, Dennis, was undergoing treatment for Mantle-Cell Lymphoma – a type of non-Hodgkins lymphoma (from Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam) that, to that point, had never been put into remission – and I was talking about it with the representative for the pharmaceutical company that provided the experimental chemotherapy he was being treated with. I’m a naturally inquisitive person.
I pointed out that I had read that non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL) only accounts for about 4% of all cancer cases in the US, and that Mantle-Cell Lymphoma accounts for only 6% of all NHL cases. That means my dad’s cancer only affected about 0.24% of all cancer patients in the US. I asked him how this chemotherapy came about with such a small sample size of people, and he gave me a lesson in what’s wrong with for-profit medicine that I wasn’t expecting.
(Paraphrasing) “Every pharmaceutical company has pain medications because that’s a huge market. Everybody has some sort of pain at one time or another. So it’s easy to justify the expense of developing new pain medications. But with a disease as rare as your dad’s, we can’t justify the R&D because we’d never recover the money – the market’s too small...”
He goes on to explain to me that the R&D was covered almost entirely by grants from the federal government through something called the Orphan Drug Act, signed by Ronald Reagan in 1983. You can read Reagan’s statement on signing the bill here. That means we, as taxpayers, funded the research and development of the drug. It was successful, which I’m thankful for, and put my father’s NHL into remission (three times now), but it was approximately $35,000 per single-dose treatment. That’s $35,000 per treatment, when the cost to the pharmaceutical company for manufacturing the chemo is $300 per dose. And he had to get a dose of this chemo every three weeks for seven months. That’s 10 treatments, or $350,000.
And the thing is, the Orphan Drug Act – which was meant just for the development of medications and treatments for the rarest medical problems our people face – accounts for nearly half of all pharmaceutical R&D in our country today. Despite the fact that we, as taxpayers, pay to develop these medications, when it comes time to use these dugs, they still end up costing us much more than the products developed in-house by these same pharmaceutical companies. It’s all profit.
“We socialize the costs and privatize the gains.”
And I think that’s wrong. If we pay to develop something as taxpayers, whatever we have to pay to use the product should be heavily price/profit-controlled at all times.
So, how does this relate to net neutrality?
The Internet – the thing on which you’re reading this article right now – is and was made possible by a thing called “TCP-IP protocol.” That’s what makes it possible for computers to interact with one another around the globe, and even into outer space. It’s essentially what the Internet “is.” And TCP-IP protocol was invented by Vincent Cerf and Robert Kahn while working on a government grant.
Which means that we, as American taxpayers, paid to create the Internet itself, yet massive corporate conglomerates are making billions of dollars charging us for access to the thing we already paid to create. Certainly, we should pay something for the service, but what we do pay should be heavily price-controlled. That’s problem number one.
Now, we get to “net neutrality.” Net neutrality is a concept that says that our access to the internet should be provided on neutral terms; we pay for access to the internet, and our access is treated the same no matter where we decide to go. Most people take this for granted, but corporations on both sides of the issue – for and against your ability to go where you want online – have been lobbying congress for over a decade to try and get our dysfunctional legislature to make a decision on this. Nothing has passed. So, in 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) declared broadband internet to be a “Title II Communication Service” and classified the Internet Service Providers (ISPs – the companies you pay for your internet access) to be “common carriers,” like taxi cabs, taking you wherever you decide you want to go for a set fee.
However, earlier today, Donald Trump’s FCC chair appointee Ajit Pai – not even two months into his five-year reign – announced that the FCC is going to repeal the Title II classification, in a huge win for giant telecom companies.
What does this mean?
Basically, it means we’re screwed. Let’s say AT&T – an ISP both through hard-wired and mobile broadband – merges with a media company like Time Warner. (The Department of Justice is challenging this merger currently, but it’s a real thing.) AT&T will be able to boost your speed when accessing Time Warner websites such as CNN, and then throttle your speed back if you try to access Fox News, for example. For that matter, there’s nothing to prevent AT&T from just blocking your access to Fox News, or any other sites AT&T doesn’t get money from.
Or imagine a situation where Netflix signs an advertising deal with Time Warner for a huge sum of money. As a result, AT&T speeds up Netflix access and then uses that as a selling point, but then throttles back Hulu, Amazon Video, Vudu, or even streaming services like DirecTV Now and Sling. On the other end, if you have Verizon, they’ll likely throttle back Netflix and promote one of its competitors.
In the end, though, we are the losers. We are the ones who are going to be denied choices, and we’re the ones who are going to end up paying premium “tiered” pricing where we’ll have to pay extra fees just to access varying websites. There will be less competition because ISPs will be able to block any sites that compete with their own. And that will kill innovation as well, since new website or application ideas won’t be able to find traction with the public without a neutral internet platform.
In short, ISPs will soon be able to treat the internet as a closed network where they can block any content they don’t like, which will give these mammoth corporations unprecedented control over our government through blocking access to campaign websites such as this very site you're reading right now! Think North Korea, except for profit.
The good news is that congress can fix it. The bad news is that they won’t. That’s where you come in. You can help fix this by electing people like me, not just in District 39, but across the nation. We need to get in there and fix this mess. To help me do that, please click here.