Life in the Slow Lane

TL;DR: freepress has a position demanding net neutrality, and there’s a WhiteHouse.gov We the People petition about net neutrality.  If you know the discussion, go sign if you are inclined.  If you’re unfamiliar, read the below and come back to sign when you’re done.  Thanks.  —GFM


 

In the summer of 2013, I interned at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, Virginia.  My office was actually in Tysons Corner,1 and both cities are fairly close to where the Capital Beltway crosses from Virginia into Maryland on the northwest side as it circles Washington, D.C, with Tysons on the outside and McLean inside it.

I carpooled with Brad, a law student at Vanderbilt.  We figured that two professional guys who have gone to graduate school would have more in common with random undergraduate interns.  We stayed in the same dorm apartment — the details of that are a whole other matter — at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, which is a good chunk from the Beltway.  The layout was something like this:

Geof's Commute to MITRE from GMU
Geof’s Commute to MITRE from GMU

You can see that there’s a lot of red there.  It took us about 25 minutes in the morning.  The evening commute was different.  I think that our best in the first two weeks was 35 minutes.  We came down the middle of those three route lines, exiting the Beltway for US 50.  We’d head west from there, cutting down to the southwest, as you can see.  GMU is just outside Fairfax on the southern limits, so getting there required going through Fairfax traffic after going through all the major thoroughfares.

On the Thursday of our second week of the internship, I decided to look into the 495 Express Lanes.  That night, it took us 65 minutes to get back to campus.  As we sat stacked up on Lee Highway, I brought up the express lane.  Brad told me to do it if the money made sense.  I ran the numbers, and they did.  I picked one up at lunch on Friday, and we gave it a test that evening.

We got home in 28 minutes.

We had enough flexibility in our commute to give our friend Siggy — who had been taking the bus from Annandale to Tysons, walking a couple of miles on either side — a ride to Annandale, which you can see was out of our way, but not by much given that the Express Lane exit we used turned left for Annandale and right for Fairfax.  Dropping Siggy off put us coming back into Fairfax on VA-236, which was a better road to campus than the one that the express lanes give you.  It cost us maybe five minutes to save him an hour on the bus, and it was worth it to be kind to our friend and have a third person in the car for conversational purposes.  (I love and miss you, Siggy!)

None of this happens Brad and I weren’t degreed professionals making north of $30/hr.  We could afford to cut the lines.  Hell, I used to half-heartedly laugh at the people stuck in traffic between VA-7 and I-66.  “Those poor bastards.  I’ve been there,” I thought.  Because I had the money to pay for the privilege of driving on a controlled-access road, I had more free time available to do as I wished.

If I’d been making $20/hr, I would’ve been sitting in traffic.  One of those days, as we were zipping down the road at 55 mph2 , we heard an NPR story about priority queueing all across the country, from theme parks to emergency rooms to, yes, vehicle express lanes.  We really didn’t say very much.

Jumping the queue has become a part of the American Way, and I think that’s a dangerous thing.  Waiting in line is the most democratic thing there is: we’re served one-at-a-time based on our arrival.  It doesn’t matter if we’re a CEO or a postman; single, married, or divorced; pretty or ugly; fat or fit; kind or unpleasant: we just wait.  None of us like to wait — just ask anyone about the DMV, or wait, just check Twitter and Facebook — but we all have to.  Frankly, it’s pretty crazy that line-jumping should become a profit center for a service provider, but it’s 2014, and we’re there.

So let’s jump into net equality — or what some people call net neutrality.  I like the former term, because it democratizes the Internet: every packet gets its turn.  Neutrality implies belligerence. Anyway, the EFF has a good primer on net neutrality equality, and I think that you should read it if you’re not up to speed.

“These aren’t alike at all!” you’re saying.  “Paying to go faster on the road isn’t the same as paying for better Internet access.”  And yes, you’re right, in a way.  There’s a fundamental difference.

With vehicle express lanes, the people paying for higher-priority access are the people directly benefitting from the service: the people able to get to and from locations faster than they once did.  With net inequality, Netflix is going to be able to pay for priority, but Netflix doesn’t get the benefit — its customers do.  No family was going to pay Brad and I more to get home from MITRE faster, and MITRE sure wasn’t going to pay us more if we could sleep in 15 more minutes.  But Netflix can sell better access to their customers, and not just from a quality-of-service issue, which customers have always thought (rightly) was Netflix’s problem and not theirs.

The problem here is simple: it’ll be a race to the top of the heap.  The obvious players — Google (for YouTube primarily), Facebook, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, ESPN, the sports streaming sites, etc.3 — are going to pay.  Where are they going to get that money?  You will be the ones paying a premium for an improvement on service that was, quite likely, adequate in the first place.  But I’d be very surprised if there’s Netflix and Netflix Premium, with the former on the Beltway and the latter in the Express Lanes.  No, I expect that everyone’s going to get to pay the freight for the better access, and that will mean:

  • Higher fees
  • More ads in our faces
  • More creepy data mining assented to in inscrutable Terms of Service that no one really reads anyway

… among others.  In other words, we’re going to pay for this access either by being a great customer or the product itself.  As someone who is on the record about not trusting free Internet services, I worry about the last two.  In the first case, I’m not sure that higher fees are going to excite me.

But I’m following the line of argument that everyone follows, and it’s worth discussing, but there’s another thing to consider here.

The people that are making these decisions to allow for priority pricing — for net inequality — are the very people who have the financial resources to skip any damn line that they want. They think that people will be attracted to priority pricing because the world that they know is priority pricing.  These decisions are made by people who either pay for priority lines or pay someone to stand in line for them.  Of course this seems like an attractive proposition to them, because they’ve grown accustomed to it.  I’m not arguing that any of the people making these decisions are bad people.4 But I am arguing that you’re going to be okay with inequality and for the “winners” retrenching their gains with legislation and regulation.

Let’s be honest: the services that have the resources to pay for priority pricing are the ones already running a profit or bilking money from investors.  But many of those that would be paying for priority pricing are actors that wouldn’t have been able to reach these dizzying heights with an unequal Internet.  It’s classic retrenching: garner success and then build walls around it to keep contenders out.  While that’s a classic American business practice, we shouldn’t let our Internet — the one that our tax dollars, cable bills, and phone bills — have paid for to suddenly become unequal.  The amazing disruption that is the Internet should be allowed to retain its disruptive power.

If net inequality were possible in 2006, just after NewsCorp bought them, Myspace could’ve built a wall around its part of the Internet that would’ve made it impossible for Facebook to supplant them.  Whether or not you feel that we upgraded when we got Facebook — as a former GeoCities user, I think that we did — we couldn’t have gotten there if Rupert Murdoch had been able to outspend Facebook’s investors.

The Internet should be an amazing, chaotic, wonderful place, one that keeps participating providers honest and vigilant to interlopers.  Net inequality allows the current winners to stay winners while sending us the bill.  I won’t sit still for that.

[ETA: The New York Times‘s editorial is worth reading.]


  1. I still want to put the apostrophe in there 

  2. The speed limit increase to 70MPH happened while we were there — I dropped the hammer in the WRX to celebrate. 

  3. This list is not exhaustive.  I’m running up at 1000 words here. 

  4. Their judgment is questionable, but I’m not going to get into their moral fiber.