From Burgers to Content: Examining Net Neutrality

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A couple of months ago, a Burger King ad, called Whopper Neutrality, went viral. The ad was attempting to explain Net neutrality by using Whoppers as a metaphor. It was definitely a clever ad, with over 4.3 million views on YouTube. If you haven't seen the ad, watch it below.

There is only one problem: The ad is misleading.

The Whopper Neutrality clip shows interaction between two parties, Burger King and the consumer. It shows Burger King implementing classic price discrimination, the action of selling the same product at different prices to different buyers to maximize profits. In this case, Burger King tries to maximize profits by varying their delivery times of Whoppers. Another form of price discrimination is to charge more for Whoppers during peak periods (i.e. lunch). Or in some cases, price discrimination comes in the form of a discount. For example, Burger King could run a promotion where it lowers prices on some of its items during off-peak hours (2-5 p.m.).

Net neutrality does not address (i.e. forbid or limit) normal economic price discrimination. Consider Netflix as an analogy. Netflix introduces two tiers for their streaming service. You can pay $10/month more to have high speed streaming, or pay the standard amount for standard/low speed streaming. Just like with the Whopper example, if you select the standard offering, Netflix deliberately slows down its streaming of shows. Thus, you are more likely to experience buffering problems, where your video stops intermittently. The incentive is for you to pay for the premium Netflix offering. The Burger King example is a simple price discrimination decision, which is not in the purview of Net neutrality.

So what would be a true burger analogy to describe Net neutrality? In this case, there are three parties -- the consumer, the access provider, and the content (burger) provider.

When you want a Whopper, you go to a Burger Store (access provider), where you can order any fast food hamburger -- not only Burger King's Whoppers, but McDonalds' Big Macs, or Wendy's Dave's Doubles. So you enter the Burger Store, go up to the counter, and order your Whopper. Behind the Burger Store are kitchens for Burger King, McDonald's and Wendy's (content/burger provider). Your order is received by Burger King, it makes your Whopper and lets the Burger Store know your order is ready. The Burger Store employee goes to the back of the store, picks up your Whopper, and then delivers it to you at the counter. The same happens for McDonald's and Wendy's orders.

At non-peak time (i.e. 3 p.m.), there is sufficient staff (bandwidth) at the Burger Store that all orders are fulfilled without any delays. However, at peak times (i.e. lunch), there are more orders than staff, and burgers are subject to delays. To avoid delays, McDonald's agrees to pay the Burger Store to prioritize deliveries of Big Macs. Thus, when employees go back to the store to pick up orders, they check McDonald's first and fulfill their orders before Burger King and Wendy's.

As you can imagine, the burger providers (including McDonald's) are naturally upset about this, as they can see the Burger Store adding another cost to providing burgers to the public. So they lobby the FBC (Federal Burger Commission) to disallow the Burger Store from treating burgers differently. In other words, Burger neutrality, where every burger is treated the same.

Another argument for Burger neutrality is the stifling of innovation. There is a new upstart, Greg's Burgers, who would like to challenge the big three burger providers. It offers the "Big Greg" which is bigger and beefier than the competing brand products. Without Burger neutrality, Greg would have to spend precious money paying the Burger Store instead of coming up with new and better innovations or spending that money on increasing brand awareness.

The Burger neutrality example shows why, as a general rule, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) tend to oppose Net neutrality. Net neutrality limits their ability to charge content providers for faster service. Conversely, it also shows why content providers favor Net neutrality. They may be forced to pay the ISP to ensure their content is delivered (streamed) without interruption.

Fast food analogies aside, Net neutrality is a major and controversial issue. And while the Burger King Whopper Neutrality ad is funny and clever, it is misleading and tends to reinforce preconceived negative opinions about Net neutrality.

"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.

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