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The long, painful path of net neutrality

Where the war over net neutrality stands, and why it (sort of) matters today.

People may scream at me for saying this, but net neutrality is one of America’s longest and now most pointless fights over technology.

The principle is sound: Companies like Comcast and AT&T that sell us home internet service shouldn’t push some online data to computers and TV sets faster than others. (The internet companies say that it’s counterproductive for the government to impose this.)

However, the debate feels much less urgent now that we’re talking about threats of online disinformation about vaccine deployment and elections. The net neutrality debate focused on internet service providers as powerful gatekeepers of internet information. That term now seems better applied to Facebook, Google and Amazon.

Yes, but the internet providers like Spectrum, Verizon and Comcast that have pipes directly into homes is what regulators care most about. They spook Silicon Valley, too, because every online company needs those internet providers to get into American homes.

There probably isn’t much of a middle ground. There are either net neutrality rules or there aren’t. And the internet service providers see net neutrality as a slippery slope that leads to broader regulation of high-speed internet services or government-imposed limits on prices they can charge. They will fight any regulation. And that’s true, too, of the lobbyists who are hired to argue against anything.

To remind you: Facebook compiles information on what we do on its apps, all over the web and in the real world. It uses that data to help Nike or the local coffee shop pitch ads to people who are likely potential customers. Google operates similarly, and lots of companies try to do versions of this.

These targeted advertisements, which are based on our behavior or computer-aided inferences about what we’ll like, benefit both us and businesses. We probably get cheaper picture-framing services or hotel rooms because Facebook gives businesses a relatively affordable way to pinpoint the most receptive customers.

But Facebook is also offering a false choice between old and wasteful types of advertising and the current mode of recording every hamburger you’ve eaten since 2001 to pinpoint ads. No no no no no.

But the way that Facebook and Google have designed their advertising systems is not the only alternative to the clunky old ways.

We would benefit from fewer Facebook publicity campaigns, and more informed debate about how advertising can best serve all of us.

Category: Technology

Source: New York Times

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