Well, unlike other lessons I could name, this particular lesson plan wasn’t disrupted in real-time by the incoming Trump administration. But it will certainly be different if I ever teach it for an Intro to Mass Communication course again.
Let’s be clear: net neutrality is dead, dead, dead. There were already reasons to be worried given AT&T’s zero-rating shenanigans in the run-up to its attempted merger with Time Warner. Since then, presumptive future head of the FCC Ajit Pai has quite clearly stated the Trump administration’s plans to destroy the current FCC’s valiant attempts to enforce net neutrality. It is an idea whose time has passed.
Why even post this, then? Will anyone teach a lesson on net neutrality in the future? I don’t see why not. Presumably people still lessons on labor unions, despite the fact that those barely exist anymore. And perhaps, in a perverse way, net neutrality’s death will mean that more people actually will understand what it once was. Once it’s gone, the ISPs’ noise machine will presumably move on to other targets, meaning that perhaps there won’t be quite as thick a slurry of blatant misinformation to fight in the future. (Although I disagree with the political right in this country on most issues, I have to say that I’ve never seen such basic confusion on the other side about what the conversation is actually about than I have around the issue of net neutrality. The points made against it are incoherent, because they often simply pretend it is something it is not. Seriously, outright falsehoods and mirror-universe projections in this area have been endemic.) In any case, it’s still worth fighting the good fight, and keeping students informed of what might have been.
This post includes one week’s worth of material. The first day of class, I give an introductory lecture. This is followed by breaking students up into groups, and giving those groups different reading assignments. Finally, we have an in-class debate when we reconvene for the week’s second class meeting. You can follow along with the visual accompaniment for the lecture portion of this week here.
1) Introductory lecture
Chapter 10 of the updated eighth edition of Stanley J. Baran’s Introduction to Mass Communication, which I used as the textbook for this course, is entitled “The Internet and the World Wide Web.” In the packet of course-construction materials I was given by DePaul, one recommended module was on “the computer.”
But, as I pointed out to my class, devoting a class day to “the internet”—let alone “the computer”(!?)—in 2016 seems silly. It would not be a stretch to say that “the internet” had already been the principle focus of our class. Two of the learning objectives I set for the course were for students to be able to “describe the relationship between culture, technological development, and mass media,” and to “discuss their own media use in relation to mass media’s social and technological history.” To that end, the changes that have arisen as the major mass communication media have begun to be distributed over the internet had been a constant theme of the course. We had looked at challenges to the economic sustainability of newspaper industry in the internet age, and new norms of journalistic ethics in the age of sponsor content. We had looked at the ways in which various forms of internet-enabled digital media formats created new practices of music listening. We had looked at how streaming video services had aided the rise of serial storytelling in television. We had looked at how the PR industry had reacted to the era of social media. Given this context, what would a week devoted to “the internet” look like at all? Doesn’t “the internet” envelope all mass media these days?
Well, yes. The companies that provide internet service are, in effect, the ultimate distributors of nearly all mass media we consume today. The time had come in the class to look at these companies’ business practices, and ask how they might better operate. And that’s precisely why, I tell students, I have decided to transform my week on “the internet” into a week on Internet Service Providers, or ISPs.
To start the discussion off, I introduce students to two basic models for thinking about the service that ISPs provide.
One would be the public utility model. Here, I throw an electricity bill up on the screen. I know that many students probably haven’t paid their own electricity bills yet, so I explain the basics of what the charges mean. The relationship between ComEd and their customers is pretty simple: ComEd provides electricity, and their customers consume electricity. The power lines connecting the power plant to the customer’s house are seen simply as a means of delivering kilowatt hours (kWh), and the customer pays for the amount of kWh that are delivered. Simple enough.
We could imagine internet service providers adopting this model. Under this model, the ISP would provide internet, and its customers would consume internet. Broadband internet lines (whether cable, or fiber, or DSL) are a means of delivering bytes (well, packets, really). Under this model, the customer would pay for the amount of bytes delivered. Or, maybe, they could pay a set fee for months of service. But, either way, there’s no differentiation between bytes. A byte is a byte, just as a kilowatt hour is a kilowatt hour.
Another, competing model would be the cable company model. Cable companies don’t operate the same way that electricity companies do, because cable isn’t considered a public utility. Time Warner Cable, for instance, differentiates between the content they offer, creating different tiers of bundled content. A cable “plan” or “package” will include some channels, but not others. Channels that can fetch a premium price will be separated off into higher-cost packages. Customers in this model don’t consume cable by the hour for a fixed rate: instead, they choose which package they want, based on where the content they want is bundled.
The position that we should treat internet service providers like public utilities is often referred to as net neutrality. Under this proposed model of industry regulation, bytes are bytes, and should be treated in a “neutral” manner. Customers should be billed by bytes, or by months of service. They shouldn’t be billed based on where those bytes are coming from. The source of those bytes shouldn’t come into the equation at all.
But what if ISPs could break internet content into tiers, much as cable companies already do with cable? It is easy to see why this would be a good business plan for them. (And, given the fact that Comcast and Time Warner Cable are also cable providers, it is easy to see why they might be immediately drawn to this type of model.) The reasons why the public might want to avoid this arrangement are, however, more complicated.
We can break the reasons to be wary of this arrangement into two basic categories: 1) the possibility of anti-competitive behavior, and 2) a step back for the internet’s long history of democratizing the flow of information.
First, the issue of anti-competitive behavior. ISPs are often also content providers. This means that, in some cases, they are competitors to other content providers. But, at the same time, their competitors are also their customers.
Take Netflix and Comcast. Netflix’s core business is providing customers with streaming video. Comcast, meanwhile, has Stream TV, a streaming video service, as one of its many ventures. Netflix produces its own content, in the form of shows like Orange Is the New Black and Jessica Jones. Comcast also produces its own content: it owns all of NBC/Universal, and all of the subsidiary film and television studios that includes. As two separate streaming video services that produce their own content, Netflix and Comcast are direct competitors. So far, so good.
But Comcast is also an ISP, which means that Netflix, as an internet-based company, is is customer. This means that whereas Netflix has to use Comcast to distribute its product, Comcast can use is status as an ISP to distribute its own product. Comcast also has the power to throttle internet traffic (that is, slow down speeds from content coming from certain providers). Netflix not only has no power to do this, but it actually has to pay fees (the preferred term among ISPs is “tolls,” although maybe a better term would be “ransom”) to keep its traffic to its customers from being throttled. Furthermore, Comcast can zero-rate its own content: that is, make it such that its own content doesn’t count against customer’s data caps. Netflix has no power to do this.
All of this together means that, as an ISP, Comcast can create costs for Netflix customers, or for Netflix itself (which then must be passed on to customers). These costs ultimately make Comcast’s streaming video service a more attractive competitor to Netflix. The questions we can ask ourselves, both as a class and as a society, are: Is this fair? Should Comcast be able to treat its own content preferably in this way?
Now, the issue of stepping back from the internet’s long history of democratizing the flow of information. Internet access has long been built around the philosophy that anyone with a web browser should be able to type in any world wide web address, and their internet service provider will direct them there. However, if ISPs start imitating cable companies more, this could change.
One model of how this could work is provided by the following image, which circulates a lot in discussions of net neutrality online. I emphasize to students that this proposed package isn’t real … at least, not yet. It has been created for rhetorical purposes, to give customers an idea of what the future might look like if net neutrality is not enforced.
Why should we be worried about a future like this? Don’t companies have a right to choose the business plan that works best for them? Well, one reason we should be worried is that the internet has long been a democratizer of both information and commerce. For decades, the idea has been that any journalist can start a personal blog, hit a big story that captures the public’s interest, and find a way to make a living outside of the mainstream media. The idea has been that any entrepreneur can start a business online, and gradually increase the size of their operation until they become the next Amazon. The question we must ask then, is: Do we want to give ISPs the power to make certain sites (including news sources, or innovative new companies) more difficult or expensive to access? Once ISPs have the power to throttle speeds or jack up the price for accessing certain sites at their discretion, doesn’t that give them too much power to potentially stamp out the next major innovation in online retail? Or, even scarier, drown out the points of view they don’t like?
2) Reading assignments
For this lesson, I gave my lecture before I assigned any relevant reading. The reading I assign for this week are pieces of journalism, not particularly difficult reading per se, but a bit head-spinning if you’re going in without the proper grounding. (I learned this the hard way the first time I attempted to teach this subject.) By giving students the lecture beforehand, I help them to contextualize the readings—and, reciprocally, the readings concretize the ideas of the lecture. I also let students know ahead of time the points they’ll be arguing for and against in the upcoming in-class debate, which hopefully helps them further focus their attention on relevant details.
I assign the groups that are going to be debating different topics different readings. The most recent time I taught this material, in may 2016, the groups and their readings were as follows:
Groups 1 & 2: Should ISPs be able to differentiate between sources of internet traffic?
- Jon Brodkin, “Netflix Performance on Verizon and Comcast Has Been Dropping for Months” (Ars Technica)
- Jon Brodkin, “After Netflix Pays Comcast, Speeds Improve 65%” (Ars Technica)
- Emil Protalinski, “Streaming Services Now Account for Over 70% of Peak Traffic in North America, Netflix Dominates with 37%” (Venturebeat)
Groups 3 & 4: Should ISPs be allowed to also be in the business of providing content?
- Jon Brodkin, “Comcast Launches Streaming TV Service That Doesn’t Count Against Data Caps” (Ars Technica)
- Jon Brodkin, “Verizon’s Mobile Video Won’t Count Against Data Caps—but Netflix Does” (Ars Technica)
- Jon Brodkin, “Netflix Throttles Video on AT&T and Verizon to Keep User Under Data Caps” (Ars Technica)
Groups 5 & 6: Will we eventually move to a tiered model of “bundled” internet packages?
- John Herrman, “Welcome to the Net Neutrality Nightmare Scenario” (BuzzFeed)
- Samantha Allen, “India Rejects Facebook’s ‘Free’ Internet” (The Daily Beast)
- Patrick Howell O’Neill, “Verizon Is Launching a Tech News Site that Bans Stories on U.S. Spying” (The Daily Dot)
3) In-class debate
By this point in the quarter, my students were well-versed in the basic setup for in-class debates. But, for your benefit, here is the format I use:
- Opening speech of odd-numbered group (5 minutes in length)
- Lay out your strongest arguments. Define key terms. Anticipate some of the opposition’s strongest arguments.
- Opening speech of even-numbered group (5 minutes in length)
- Lay out your strongest arguments. Define key terms. Anticipate some of the opposition’s strongest arguments. Do not directly rebut—that comes later.
- Rebuttal of odd-numbered group (2-3 minutes in length)
- Engage directly with your opponents, while simultaneously carrying forward your strongest arguments.
- Rebuttal of even-numbered group (2-3 minutes in length)
- Engage directly with your opponents, while simultaneously carrying forward your strongest arguments.
- Closing arguments of odd-numbered group (90 seconds in length)
- Weigh your strongest claims against the opposition’s strongest claims.
- Closing arguments of even-numbered group (90 seconds in length)
- Weigh your strongest claims against the opposition’s strongest claims.
- Questions by all members of groups not presenting
- Voting on who won the debate by all members of groups not presenting.
And here’s the groups I created, and the positions I set out for them to defend, for this particular debate. (Again, this was from May, so some of the specifics of my introductory paragraphs are out-of-date.)
DEBATE A: Should ISPs be able to differentiate between sources of internet traffic? (Specifically, should they be allowed to throttle a specific content provider, and then charge to undo that throttling?)
One major difference in how internet service providers operate within the US, as opposed to services formally recognized as public utilities (such as water and electricity), is that internet service providers are currently allowed to differentiate between content delivered from different sources.
Whereas water companies deliver gallons of water to a user’s home for a fixed price, and electricity companies provide kilowatt-hours of electricity to a user’s home for a fixed price, internet service providers are allowed to “throttle” the speeds of internet content coming from specific content providers, or charge internet content providers different rates when delivering their data to the end user. In recent years, Netflix has been a large target for behavior such as this.
It will be the job of groups 1 and 2 to inform the class about this practice, while vying for the class’s opinions on whether it is acceptable or not.
Group 1: I would like you to argue on behalf of ISP’s continued ability to differentiate between different sources of internet traffic, and to throttle a source of traffic if need be. One possible line of argument here could be that, since Netflix takes up such a large share of peak-hour internet traffic (37%!), ISPs such as Verizon and Comcast are perfectly within their rights to charge them more than other internet content providers, given the strain delivering their content to users creates on these ISP’s network.
Group 2: I would like you to argue against the ISP’s continued ability to differentiate between different sources of internet traffic, and to throttle any sources of traffic. One possible line of argument here could be that so-called “tolls” charged to companies such as Netflix—who must pay up to prevent their traffic being throttled, and their user-end experience being negatively impacted—are little more than extortion, a “protection racket” that saves Netflix from abuse at the ISP’s own hands.
DEBATE B: Should ISPs be allowed to also be in the business of providing content? Or does this give them an unfair competitive advantage?
In today’s climate of conglomeration and vertical integration among major players in the mass communications business, it is almost unheard of that an internet service provider will not also be part of a larger company that produces, licenses, and distributes content. Until its recent acquisition by Charter, Time Warner Cable was owned by the film and television production company Time Warner. Comcast, meanwhile, owns both NBC/Universal and Dreamworks. Along with owning these major powerhouses of mass entertainment content creation, Comcast has also dabbled in internet streaming services, such as its Stream TV, a competitor to streaming services such as Netflix—as has fellow ISP Verizon.
This creates a complicated situation. Since almost all types of entertainment these days—from streaming video services to streaming music services—are delivered over internet protocol (IP), companies from Netflix to Hulu to Tidal are reliant upon the internet-providing services of companies such as Comcast or Verizon. However, since these ISPs also dabble in their own entertainment services—original content creation, competing streaming services, etc.—Netflix, Hulu, Tidal, et al., are, in effect, customers of these companies’ internet service provision, while simultaneously direct competitors to their content creation and distribution.
It will be the job of groups 3 and 4 to inform the class about this situation, while vying for the class’s opinions on whether it is acceptable or not.
Group 3: I would like you to argue on behalf of ISPs such as Comcast’s and Verizon’s continued ability to both provide services to companies such as Netflix, while also competing with them on certain grounds (such as providing original content, or streaming services). Convince the class that there is no problem with a major company diversifying its output.
Group 4: I would like you to argue that companies such as Netflix being both a customer of and competitor to ISPs such as Comcast and Verizon gives the latter an unfair competitive advantage. Practices such as creating streaming video services to compete against Netflix that do not count against user data caps are one such manifestation of this unfair advantage: Here, rather than fairly compete with Netflix as a service, these companies can make their products more attractive by excepting themselves from the rules they force Netflix to play by on their networks.
DEBATE C: Will we eventually move to a tiered model of “bundled” internet packages? And, if so, what does this mean for internet-based journalism?
One of the narratives frequently put forward by net neutrality advocates is that, without regulation, ISPs will someday transform internet services into something that much more closely resembles cable television today: that is, access to certain sites is guaranteed at a low price, but access to a greater number of sites will be bundled into different packages, separated into different payment tiers.
There is, as of now, no precedent for this pricing model in the U.S. Facebook has, however, experimented with a similar idea with its “Free Basics” in India, which would provide free access to Facebook for Indian citizens, but would not provide access to additional forms of internet traffic.
One concern that is raised if a payment model such as this were to actually come to pass is its effect on internet-based journalism. Up until now, the internet has acted as a great democratizer of journalism, allowing small blogs to compete with major newspapers’ sites. A shift to a tiered model, however, might hide quality journalism behind a paywall, beyond the reach of many customers. This is especially worrying if ISPs create their own competing news sites (such as Verizon’s aborted SugarString) that might be cheaper to access (a model we already see in their treatment of streaming video services), but might also be an official PR wing of the ISP, rather than unbiased journalism.
It will be the job of groups 5 and 6 to inform the class about this possibility, while vying for the class’s opinions on how far-flung it is.
Group 5: I would like you to attempt to sell the ultimate nightmare scenario that net neutrality advocates fear. Convince the class, as best as possible, that without net neutrality regulation we are eventually moving to a tiered model of internet payment, one that will negatively effect our ability to receive unbiased news on the internet. In our dystopian future, companies like Verizon will be able to hand out corporate-authored “news” sites like SugarString for free, while hiding quality journalism behind exorbitant payment tiers. ISPs will have far too much control over the information common citizens can afford to see and use.
Group 6: I would like you to attempt to convince the class that this ultimate nightmare scenario is a bunch of hooey. The failure of initiatives such as SugarString and Facebook’s “Free Basics” should provide you with plenty of ammunition here. The future in which ISPs have too much control over what internet customers see and use is simply not going to come to pass.
For the record, groups 2, 4, and 5 won their respective debates. So students were opposed to throttling and the zero-rating of ISP’s own entertainment content, but skeptical of the journalism-squashing tiered-internet nightmare scenario. Well, I guess we’ll see what Ajit Pai has in store for us!