Progressives have expressed concerns about consumer access to content of their choice; that decisions to access lawful content not be undermined by the end-user’s broadband access provider. Consumer choice implies that the consumer has placed some value on the content he or she wants to receive. One consumer may place a greater value on using their bandwidth to reading up-to-the-minute press releases on PR Newswire and business news content. Another consumer in Florida may place greater value on gaming with his friends in Wisconsin. Should net neutrality proponents be concerned about a consumer’s value-maximizing decision where the very small websites that net neutrality proponents claim to advocate for are not accessed as a result of consumer versus broadband provider “blocking?”
Utility or value maximization is nary mentioned by net neutrality proponents. They have beaten around the bush by discussing it indirectly in the guise of non-discrimination or non-blocking principles. Saying non-blocking or non-discrimination provides a false sense of speaking truth to power by putting the “bad guy” taint on broadband providers. It also helps to embolden their status with their constituency, the consumers who believe that a handful of documented net neutrality violations is indicative of how broadband providers will behave even when millions if not billions of transactions occur every day without a net neutrality hitch.
But highlighting actual consumer choice, a consumer’s ability to place higher priority of certain websites over other content doesn’t seem to be the progressives’ cup of tea. An enhanced analysis of the content markets should have as an issue whether consumers can make this type of choice and whether public policy should encourage it. My bet is that progressives prefer consumer choice light versus strong, robust consumer choice.
The reason why this proper market analysis won’t be entertained by net neutrality proponents goes back to the “V” word; value. Small content providers don’t have much in capital or time to garner the traction and eyeballs that larger, more entrenched content providers have. It’s the economics of net neutrality. Larger content providers have sunk millions into the marketing necessary to gain traffic. Some are merely leveraging their legacy infrastructure. For example, I’m a fan of The Economist. Not only do I subscribe online, but I also get the print version so that I can read it on the plane or MARTA rail. The Economist leverages its print reputation to attract readers online. Online magazines that can establish pay walls and maintain loyalty with superior content will make revenues, hopefully have profits, and maintain barriers to entry.
Unfortunately for the smaller content providers progressives are so concerned about, energy is being directed toward a public policy initiative that won’t do anything for their marketing or their profit. It’s also unfortunate that nary one of the grass roots advocacy groups pushing net neutrality have made a cogent economic argument that could give the Commission any proper guidance.