Honest Environmentalists Oppose Net Neutrality

Dec 29, 2017

Should people pay more when they use large amounts of internet bandwidth? The goal of Net Neutrality was to prevent exactly that, stopping companies from charging more for high-bandwidth applications, like Netflix.

Honest environmentalists, however, argue that people and companies should pay the market price for bandwidth-intensive internet use because it uses more energy. Here are just two examples.

Some environmentalists critique Bitcoin because the underlying algorithm uses a great deal of energy. As CBS News reported, computers dedicated to managing Bitcoin consume, “more energy than 159 countries.” As a result, some argue increased use of Bitcoin, “would just exacerbate anthropogenic climate change by needlessly increasing electricity consumption until it’s too late.”

Bitcoin isn’t the only application with a significant demand on bandwidth and energy. Netflix also uses a significant amount.

A study from 2015 on reducing the carbon footprint of consumer products notes, “Delivering higher-definition content [on Netflix] has an added environmental impact that many subscribers may not be aware of…” The study asked if people would be willing to pay more for the increased energy use – and environmental impact – from higher bandwidth streaming. The researchers found a quarter of people would be willing to pay more and 42 percent would be willing to switch to lower-bandwidth versions of programs to reduce environmental impact. In other words, users pay more for increased energy use and environmental impact.

Unlike Net Neutrality supporters who argue all uses of bandwidth and energy should be treated in a “neutral” way, those looking to promote energy efficiency recognize it is better to have users pay the appropriate cost of their bandwidth and energy use.

This is a standard concept in energy pricing. Utilities and customers pay more for electricity during “peak” periods, when demand is high. Higher prices provide an incentive to conserve or shift the timing of electricity use. The critique of Bitcoin and the study on the impact of Netflix recognize that bandwidth is electricity and argue there is a cost associated with that demand.

Like electric utilities, providers will try rate structures and, as the Netflix study demonstrated, consumers will embrace some and reject others. Paying a bit more for HD (like paying more for renewable energy) may be acceptable. Paying per click probably won’t be.

Admittedly, the Trump Administration didn’t get rid of Net Neutrality because it helped the environment. Environmentalists recognize, however, that allowing (as opposed to mandating) differential pricing for increased use of bandwidth can help achieve environmental goals.