I sort of buried this point in one of my long, super-boring net neutrality posts, but I’ve been going back and forth with Brooke about it on Twitter today, and consequently feel like emphasizing it: neutrality opponents would do themselves a favor by dropping the critiques that essentially say, “Well, if you want to make your ISP more like the DMV, be my guest!”
I mean, I get it: everyone hates the DMV, and the Post Office, and the IRS. Why, their eternal inefficiency is recorded in the formulaic sitcom scripts of our youth; for culture-free postmodern nostalgists, that’s practically holy writ.
And actually, it is sort of true. I did find myself waiting at the Post Office for about 40 minutes earlier this year because they couldn’t find a package that I’d gotten a delivery slip for (turns out it was already out for re-delivery, but they had no record of this). I’ve been bored at the DMV like everyone else.
But last week I spent 30 minutes on hold with Verizon before getting hung up on. This came after a visit to their store where the clerk gave me information that I know is incorrect, which came after a visit when the clerk just gave me some pamphlets (and more incorrect information) when he learned I already had an iPhone under contract. It took Comcast two appointments to get my Tivo set up when they could have just mailed me the goddamn CableCard. WTTG used to drop out during the 9 o’clock hour for some reason. Verizon once sent a collection agency after me for charges during a trial period that a clerk had assured me I wouldn’t owe. And Emily paid for DSL for at least four months, during which time it worked maybe twice — this despite both of us making repeated calls to tech support, and a couple of failed service calls. Hell, when my family first got DSL our troubleshooting file became so long that I had to wait about ten minutes every time I called in just so the tech could read it.
From everything I’ve seen, these experiences are not at all atypical. The point being: people might hate government inefficiency, but they really, really hate their ISPs. Maybe it’s my own inclinations coloring my perceptions; maybe it’s hopelessness in the face of bureaucracy versus fury at not getting what you paid for; but from my vantage point it’s not even close: the home broadband duopoly has delivered a level of service significantly inferior to the one people expect from the public sector.
This is not to say that there are no good arguments to be mustered against government regulation of ISPs. But if you could make Comcast behave more like the water utility, most of their customers would immediately envelop you in a tearful, joyous embrace. The “not the post office!” free market trope is not only tired, but particularly ill-suited to this debate.
TO CLARIFY: I don’t think that the ISPs’ awfulness is an affirmative argument for regulation. I just don’t think that their wonderfulness is much of an argument against regulation. I’ve tried to make this distinction over at Tim’s place, too. The broadband market is weird, and screwed up, and regulation might help or hurt or not matter much. But I don’t know any consumers who are particularly in love with the status quo.