Two years on, it is clear that the network neutrality fight was meta-miserable

Eric Weinstein’s recent conversation with Balaji Srinivasan reminded me of today’s auspicious anniversary. On this date, two years ago, the Restoring Internet Freedom Order took effect, effectively ending the Open Internet Order from the Obama Era.

Looking back, I can confidently say that the policy discussion surrounding network neutrality failed meta-miserably. Us policy wonks need to do better and a good first step would be the embrace of prediction tournaments and policy bets.

At the time, many worried that this change in law would mean the end of an open Internet and its bounty. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps wrote in USA Today that two paths were possible. “Will consumers and citizens control their online experiences, or will a few gigantic gatekeepers take this dynamic technology down the road of centralized control, toll booths and constantly rising prices for consumers?” Advocates against the rule change explained that, “Without #NetNeutrality, the internet will be like in-flight wifi. Slow, expensive, insecure, and where most of the best stuff is blocked unless you pay more.” Senator Ed Markey even addressed the issue of apocalyptic messaging: “Don’t be fooled by the voices that say this is all doom and gloom & that the ISPs would NEVER block or throttle content. Mark my words, without #NetNeutrality, these are not alarmist & hypothetical harms. They are real, & without #NetNeutrality they may become the new normal.”

But as I implored, “If you’re worried about net neutrality, put your reputation on the line and make a prediction about the future.” Each of the concerns voiced by these leaders and analysts could easily be tested in the future. Why not make a prediction now and then come back and see who was right? To get the ball rolling, I laid out some hypotheses:

  • A large ISP, as defined by more than 1 million subscribers, will explicitly block political speech.
  • A large ISP will explicitly throttle an upstream content site.
  • A large ISP will demand additional payment from an upstream content site, separate from transit negotiations.
  • Beginning in January 2019, the Consumer Price Index for “Internet services and electronic information providers” (SEEE03) will begin to rise faster than the total CPI.

As the FCC began to change course throughout the end of 2017 and into 2018, I found it exceedingly difficult to get people to make a commitment one way or another. No one wanted to have skin in the game. When I pressed Carl Malamud on it, he called the idea “some kind of strange frat initiation.” Gigi Sohn, who worked at the FCC during the passage of Open Internet Order, also passed up on the offer to make predictions.

Two years later, none of the first three horror stories have come to pass. However, the CPI for Internet services did go up. SEEE03 saw a 1.7 percent increase from Jan 2019 to May 2020 compared to 1.27 percent increase for the bigger bundle, CPI-U. Had either Carl or Gigi taken me up on the bet, I would have freely admitted failure. However, I now would be more flexible in my predictions and ask for a 5 percent confidence bound around the change, which wouldn’t have mattered anyway. I was wrong about this prediction.

Making predictions might seem odd, but a properly calibrated forecasting tournament has numerous benefits. For one, they depolarize debates, according to research. Since participants are forced to make predictions and then account for those beliefs, they become more moderate in their own political attitudes and those they attribute to the other side. The trio of psychologists who conducted this research explained that these tournaments belong “to a broader class of psychological inductions that increase epistemic humility,” which force people “to explore alternative perspectives, probing the depth of their cause-effect understanding and holding them accountable to audiences with difficult-to-guess views.” The issue of network neutrality has become polarized. One way to mitigate that bifurcation is to put your reputation on the line and make a prediction about the future.

More importantly, these betting tournaments would likely result in better predictions. Intelligence agencies have experimented with these methods of prediction since the early 2010s and found that some people are much better than experts at predicting the future. Superforecasters, as they are called, are “reportedly 30 percent better than intelligence officers with access to actual classified information.” Given the uncertainty that tech policy mires in, I would hope that wonks would embrace better prediction methods.

Some years ago, the economist Alex Tabarrok called for accountability, saying,

Bullshit is polluting our discourse and drowning the facts. A bet costs the bullshitter more than the non-bullshitter so the willingness to bet signals honest belief. A bet is a tax on bullshit; and it is a just tax, tribute paid by the bullshitters to those with genuine knowledge.

Those of us who care deeply about being honest when laying out the risks of regulation or new laws should be embracing bets and prediction tournaments. Policy wonks need real accountability and these tools are one way to get there.