Mark Cuban has become one of the loudest voices against new so-called net neutrality regulations that's not coming from a telecom company's executive suite.
On his lively Twitter feed and in provocative blog comments, the entrepreneur has questioned the wisdom of the government treating broadband Internet as a kind of public infrastructure, as was recently called for by President Obama. That approach would require that Internet service providers to ensure they treat all content that flows through their networks more or less the same. Cuban's biggest worry: that those rules, even if well-intentioned, could end up killing innovation.
If you only know the colorful Cuban from ABC's "Shark Tank," where hopeful entrepreneurs pitch him and other venture capitalists on their best business ideas, or his role as the NBA-agitating owner of the Dallas Mavericks, you might not know of his hard-earned technology chops. Cuban got his real professional start as a computer consultant, selling that company in 1992 to CompuServ for millions. He later helped grow a service for live online streaming of radio stations and sports events; he and a partner sold Broadcast.com to Yahoo in 1999 for $5.6 billion.
The idea that the federal government should apply firm and fast "neutrality" rules to the Internet is, arguably, quickly becoming conventional wisdom. And there's nothing that Cuban dislikes more than untested conventional wisdom. We owe it to the Internet, he argues, to ask the hard questions now.
In an e-mail Q&A (Cuban's preferred method of interviewing on topics like these), I asked Cuban how, exactly, the public should think about the preserving the Internet's future. Cuban obliged, saying that he's not motivated by figuring out how to keep selling the movies he produces or the television programming he stars in. Or, at least, not only that. "The promise of the Internet is not reruns of 'Shark Tank' or any movie or TV show," he argued. "It's that it's a platform for creativity and innovation."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let's say you're on "Shark Tank" and you have to give your quick pitch on net neutrality. What do you say?
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Verizon decision [the January, 2014, court order that struck down the Federal Communication Commission's 2010 passage of net neutrality rules] has created an opportunity for the FCC to introduce more rule-making. They shouldn't. Things have worked well. There is no better platform in the world to start a new business than the Internet in the United States.
If an Internet service provider wants to charge a content provider -- whether it's Netflix or Joe's Homemade Films -- extra to give their content a boost, are you okay with that?
There is a difference between a boost and a fast lane. I want there to be fast lanes because there will be applications that need fast lanes. We are just now entering a period where we are seeing new ways to create and use high bitrate applications.
People like to use movies and TV shows as a reference to issues that could occur on the Internet. [But] the real issue is that there will be many applications that we can't foresee today. [And] we need those applications to not just have priority, but guaranteed quality of service.
I want certain medical apps that need the Internet to be able to get the bandwidth they need. There will be apps that doctors will carry on 5G networks that allow them to get live video from accident scenes and provide guidance. There will be machine vision apps that usage huge amounts of bandwidth. I want them to have fast lanes.
You've been sparring online with the New York City venture capitalist Fred Wilson over President Obama's plan to apply to broadband Title II of the Communications Act, which was created to govern systems like landline phones. Wilson's pro, you're anti. What is he missing?
It's not sparring. It's learning. That's the way I learn. You throw out your platform and see what comes back. I don't think Fred has anything wrong. He seems to anticipate all these vile consequences from big Internet service providers. I think things work and that the greater risk comes from new rule-making.
You were deeply involved in the start of Broadcast.com in the mid-'90s and it proved to be a huge success for you. Do you worry at all about what happens to the next set of entrepreneurs with their own Broadcast.com if the FCC doesn't manage to pass -- and defend in court -- strong net neutrality rules?
The exact opposite: I worry what might happen if they do. I have yet to talk to a single entrepreneur, or investment I have, or potential investment I have, or [seen an] acquisition or sale of a company on the Internet where the issue of net neutrality has come up. No one starting a business even considers net neutrality in their business, except for those that are religious about it and ISPs and networks that have to deal with any uncertainty it introduces.
Cities in Colorado have recently bucked a spate of recent bans on municipal broadband and approved letting themselves build their own ISPs. Do you support government getting involved in broadband in that way?
I love it. I have no problem with it at all.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has had something called the "Mark Cuban Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents," funded by you. Why are strong, bright-line laws clarifying when it comes to patents but, as you've argued, destabilizing when it comes to broadband Internet?
We have seen patents and patent trolls destroy small businesses. I have been sued countless times over nonsense patents. On the flip side, there haven't been examples of all the bad deeds that net neutrality proponents have said would happen. [Note: Cuban dismissed last winter's complaint that Netflix's traffic has been restricted by Comcast as a matter of poor resource allocation and cited the 2008 throttling of BitTorrent traffic by Comcast as an issue that was caught and fixed.] So the finger is pointed at two examples. I can name you thousands of suits from patent trolls that are detrimental in every way, shape and form. That's the difference.
You tweeted that there are parallels between the net neutrality debate and the work of Ayn Rand. I'm guessing the reference is to "Atlas Shrugged." Is the worry that Comcast or AT&T is going to go all John Galt and declare a strike?
Not the big public companies -- the innovative entrepreneurs that will work over mesh networks or create wireless off-net solutions that avoid traditional Internet networks.
What do you make of "zero-rating," or when data is subsidized so that it doesn't count against users' mobile phone plans, like Facebook Zero in dozens of countries around the world or T-Mobile's Music Freedom feature here in the United States?
I have no problem with it. It's a business decision that has as a much chance to fail as work. If you don't like the offering from T-Mobile you may go somewhere else. Or if you like the offering, you may switch to T-Mobile.
If T-Mobile came to me and asked me if I wanted to subsidize their consumers getting [Dallas] Mavs games streamed live over their phones or to mobile home routers, without impacting their data caps, I would love it, if the price was right, and would do it in a heartbeat.
If asked, would you serve as the next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission?
Not in a million years. I would rather run for president, and that has no chance of happening, either. I don't have the patience for politics.
Other Q&A's on net neutrality on The Switch: