Every time the net neutrality debate flares up, the ISP industry and its anti-net neutrality allies come up with some reason why leaving unfettered gatekeeper power in the hands of the people who invented the cable video bundle is awesome rather than something that needs oversight to prevent rip offs and anticompetitive behavior. It used to be “net neutrality/Title II will kill investment.” This claim has been repeatedly disproven (you can see some Free Press explanation for why this is nonsense here, here and here). Furthermore, Covid showing the truly massive dimensions of the persistent digital divide has largely discredited “deregulation will spur investment — really!” to all but the most diehard true believers.
With Title II back on the table again, we are seeing the repetition of yet another talking point that sounds plausible but turns out to be totally wrong when you actually dig into the evidence. ISPs and their defenders are repeatedly claiming that the U.S. did better than other net neutrality countries (specifically, the EU27) when it came to handling the crush of Covid-19 induced traffic. Unsurprisingly, they credit the lack of regulation for this amazing response. Once again, this claim does not hold up to real scrutiny.
As with the investment nonsense, this is a highly complicated area and therefore subject to a lot of spin and heated arguments over what the data actually show and how to explain it. It is made even more difficult by the complete lack of any official statistics (or, as the recent BITAG report put it more politely: “Data sources vary from independent measurement systems to self-reported internal company sources.” (P 7 n.1) So I will just give a few headlines up top and dig into the details below.
Contrary to industry boosterism, everything was not awesome for networks during Covid. As one industry observer put it: “By ‘handling’ the volumes they mean that their networks are not crashing and shutting down. But I think there is a whole lot more to these headlines than what they are telling the public.” For reports from the actual time about U.S. problems, see here, here, and here.
The U.S. Performed Worse Than Some Countries With Net Neutrality Laws. Studies vary, but one important one looked at not simply the EU and U.S., but also the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and Canada. EFTA member states have the same net neutrality mandates as the EU (sometimes referred to as the EU27, referring to the full member 27 as distinct from the EFTA). Canada has treated broadband as a telecom service for something like 2 decades now, and has similar net neutrality laws to the U.S. 2016 rules. As this study found the U.S. internet traffic as a whole suffered a 4.9% increase in congestion as compared to 7.25% for the entire EU27, but this was significantly higher than for EFTA (3.3%) or Canada (2.4%). Additionally, when surveyed a week later, EFTA and Canada had made significantly greater progress on reducing congestion than the U.S. Furthermore, the U.S. numbers were for the largest cities with the strongest networks. If you start taking out members of the EU27 who aren’t considered our economic peers, the numbers for Europe improve to be comparable with those of the U.S. So sure, there were some differences but they had nothing to do with net neutrality regulations.
There isn’t a lot of evidence to support the “U.S. did better than the EU” claim. While you can find some studies that support the thesis that the U.S. did “better” by some set of metrics, there are a lot of other studies that show that from a consumer perspective, E.U. and U.S. subscribers had similar experiences. See here, here, here, and here.
The Netflix Red Herring. The “EU asked YouTube and Netflix to downgrade traffic” factoid beloved of ISPs and their supporters is a red herring. Yes, EU regulators approached Netflix, YouTube when lockdowns began to reduce the quality of their video from high-def to standard. But this was a prophylactic precaution to head off a potential concern, not a response to congestion. Only in the U.S. — and only among industry and Libertarians — would the idea of government and all industry sectors coordinating and accepting “a joint responsibility to take steps to ensure the smooth functioning of the internet” be regarded as a sign of weakness or regulatory overreach rather than a simple statement of reasonable prudence and preparedness.
More below . . .