Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Net Neutrality" Really Means Government Control of the Internet

Recently, a federal court struck down an FCC attempt to impose so-called "net neutrality" rules on internet service providers (ISPs). Net neutrality is government-enforced law that forbids ISPs from "discriminating" in regard to internet content providers who use their networks, whether in regard to price of services, distribution of bandwidth (capacity) content providers can use, etc. 

In response to the court ruling, the FCC last Spring proposed allowing ISPs to charge higher rates for faster service. This raised the ire of a host of companies, venture capitalists, "consumer advocates", and other net neutrality proponents. The FCC is expected to make a final decision after a period of public comment, which ends in September.

The New Jersey Star-Ledger presented the case for government-enforced "net neutrality". They wrote:

    Unless somebody has an ethical transfusion, net neutrality could be demolished during another D.C. power grab tomorrow morning, when the Federal Communications Commission will hold an open meeting.
    At issue is whether FCC chairman Tom Wheeler goes through with his plan to create a "fast lane" for the high-capacity content that you get from the likes of Netflix or YouTube, while everything else gets funneled into the sclerotic pathway filled with smaller websites that cannot afford the extortion demanded by Comcast, Road Runner or Verizon.

The Star-Ledger went so far as to call for full regulatory control of ISPs by turning them into the equivalent of phone companies. I left these comments: 

"[Wheeler] seems reluctant to take the easy way out: The FCC can simply reclassify ISPs as common carriers and bring them under its regulatory control through Title II of the Communications Act."—Star-Ledger

This indicates what's really at stake in the net neutrality fight; increasing government control of the internet, via government bureaucrats' power to dictate how ISPs run their businesses—who they must contract with, how much they may charge, and ultimately what content they may provide.

ISPs invested $billions to build out their infrastructures. It is their business and their property that provides the service, and they have a right to manage their services according to their own judgement, including charging different rates for different qualities of service. The big companies that can afford the higher rates for faster service got big by building a large base of satisfied customers. It is, after all, consumers who ultimately decide who grows and who doesn't, who is profitable and who isn't. If a new company cannot afford the higher rates, then they must build their business through the "sclerotic pathway" until they achieve the kind of consumer base that will give them the revenue and profits to afford the higher rates. (Keep in mind that internet quality and speed is always improving thanks to investments in new technology, including by ISPs.)

I think the editors are the ones who need an ethical transfusion. Individual rights, including property and contract rights, should be the standard for law and government policy. "Net neutrality" rules violate rights and represent a government power-grab over the internet. A truly "free and open internet" requires that ISPs, internet content providers, and their consumers be left free to contract voluntarily with each other to mutual advantage, with government as enforcer, not dictator, of contracts. The government's job is to protect rights—equally and non-discriminatorily. It's government neutrality that we need.

For a more in-depth argument against government-enforced net neutrality, I recommend Net Neutrality: Toward a Stupid Internet.

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