“Life isn’t fair.”
A lesson passed down from parent to child in every generation.
And to most kids, the concept of fairness only seems important when they are the ones experiencing the injustice. So important, in fact, that children will retaliate against a sibling who tries to grab more jelly beans than their fair share, even if it means risking the loss of their own candy. It’s why my mom instituted the “you break, I take” rule in our household. If I split the cookie in half, my sister got to pick which half she ate.
Enter the Net Neutrality debate, which has caused a good deal of confusion, even for those of us in industries directly tied to all things Internet. The short story: Internet service providers (ISPs) that carry network traffic originally allowed the free flow of information—between each other, to their customers (corporations, universities, etc) and therefore eventually to individuals.
However, ISPs are fighting to survive in an increasingly competitive and ever-changing market. Some of these companies (those that were originally telephone providers for example) have noticed that they aren’t getting quite as many jelly beans as they used to. So they’re considering changing to a model of regulated, paid content (like slowing down online voice and video chat unless you pay a premium).
If that didn’t help, don’t worry. Turns out they make YouTube videos with marker drawings to explain everything these days.
Providers’ instinct to survive is not surprising. Our demand for fairness may actually be an evolutionary method of self-preservation for those in jeopardy of having less than others. It exists in other social animals as well. Studies show that one monkey is perfectly happy to exchange a granite token for a cucumber until he sees another monkey getting a grape for the same task. Similarly, a dog is willing to follow commands without reward until he sees a fellow pup getting a treat just for sitting.
The cable companies, phone companies and others that now want to limit or collect money for what has always been freely accessible are acting in a similar fashion.
However, fairness as a concept is not always a purely selfish one. For example, healthy adults from a tribe in Paraguay with no dependents of their own donate as much as 90% of the food they gather to more needy members of the community. Some scientists theorize that cooperation for the wellbeing of the larger group is actually what allowed humans to evolve beyond apes. A New York Times piece on the topic quotes Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, who points out that “you will never see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.”
While striving for fairness may be what made us human, it has its intricacies when it comes to our market-based society. People are likely to call for equal distribution of things with their own intrinsic value, like food or vacation days. But a psychological study showed that when it comes to something that is exchanged for items of value, like money or even credit card reward points, we largely believe that people should receive based on what they’ve contributed.
The ISPs once shared the view of the tribesmen in Paraguay– treating the network as a symbiotic, cooperative relationship for the mutual benefit of everyone. But because their institutional expertise is in the infrastructure business, not the data business, they were caught off guard by how much digital innovation could affect their profits. Think about the threat Skype and Hulu pose to phone and cable companies. Now they’re rethinking their perspective. Maybe the network is not intrinsically valuable. Maybe it’s something that is “exchanged” for content and information, and should follow the rules of our economy rather than being universally accessible. ISPs started as conduits, but now want to be gatekeepers.
This sort of change of heart happens at an individual level as well. Within each of us, there is a natural tension between selfish behavior and altruism. Economist Tim Jackson explains that there is also a tension between novelty-seeking behavior and tradition or stability-seeking behavior.
In his opinion, the reasons fairness is such a struggle in economic systems is because most of them are designed to live only in one small quadrant of human nature.
Given this reality, the Net Neutrality debate has two basic layers.
Should these companies be allowed to manipulate network traffic for financial gain? If so, who should set the rules and regulations around these behaviors? While answers to these questions continue to be batted back and forth by industry leaders, governments and corporations, we believe that brands can (and should) play a role in creating a more mutually beneficial solution in the meantime.
That solution lies in transparency. Overages and slow-downs are inherently manipulative. The average consumer does not know how much data they consume or what levels of speed they might need. We are consistently shocked by higher-than-expected bills and annoyed by slower-than-expected speed.
Instead, carriers should evolve beyond the chimpanzee view of fairness and carry the log with us. Brands stuck in the middle of this battle should act as our partners: monitoring usage, providing easy to understand, accurate readings of activity and offering the flexibility to try out different levels of pricing and service accordingly. That would be a brand people would want to trust and support over time as the laws and policies continue to fluctuate.