Free Markets, Free People

Monthly Archives: October 2010

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The politics of net neutrality

Net neutrality is back in the news.  So, are you for it or against it?

Given the debate that surrounds the subject, that’s not as easy a question to answer as you might imagine.  Because in order to answer it you have to understand what “for” and “against” even mean now.

The internet as a phenomenon broke onto the world’s stage some years ago and has been growing and improving exponentially for years.  It has not only improved the flow and availability of information but the lives of countless millions of people around the globe as well. And it has essentially accomplished all of this without any major government intervention.

Of course most knew that anything that powerful and uncontrolled must come to the attention of government at some point.  The question is – to what purpose? Why should government intrude on a network that is providing so much acknowledged good without it? The answer: because it is there. And the paranoid are sure that the corporations that are involved in it are up to no good. Thus we need government’s help to keep those evil corporations in line.

Enter the concept of “net neutrality” and the postulation that unless government steps in to ensure it remains “neutral”, greedy corporations would take advantage of the net to advance their bottom lines to the detriment of small consumers.

That’s not something made up in an effort to overstate the case. It is the argument of those who favor government’s involvement, such as Senator Al Franken. Speaking at a meeting on the subject of net neutrality on August 19th, Franken said, “When government does not act, corporations will.  And unlike government agencies which have a legal responsibility to protect consumers, the only thing corporations care about … is their bottom line.”

While it is certainly true that corporations care about their bottom line, the way corporations increase that bottom line is by making and keeping customers happy.  That critical part of how the “bottom line” is increased is somehow always lost on the “let’s get government involved” crowd who feed off of fear driven and unfounded paranoia to justify intrusion.

The debate and arguments for or against the proposed net neutrality regulation aren’t hard to find.  Google and Verizon have offered their version of net neutrality that has been seen as either corporations writing the rules to help themselves or as the maintenance of the status quo.  Frankly, the status quo seems to be working quite well for most.

Much of the “let’s get government involved” movement is led by “Free Press”, a group which has made a cottage industry of the effort. Their main effort is focused on empowering the FCC to “regulate the internet” – a broad and, frankly, scary charter.  For some reason, Free Press is under the impression the FCC has the power to do so through the 1996 Telecom Act.   But does the FCC have that power?  Most familiar with the act don’t believe so. That includes a number of groups usually associated with progressive causes.

In fact, none other than John Kerry made that point in 1999.

“The overarching policy goal of the 1996 Act is to promote a market-driven, robustly competitive environment for all communications services.  Given that, we wish to make it clear that nothing in the 1996 (Telecommunications) Act or its legislative history suggests that Congress intended to alter the current classification of Internet and other information services or to expand traditional telephone regulation to new and advanced services.”

Of course that was before net neutrality became the “top technology priority” of the Obama administration.  That prompted something for which Mr. Kerry is quite famous – a flip-flop.

“A win for the [telecommunication and cable companies] would mean that the FCC couldn’t protect Net Neutrality, so the telecoms could throttle traffic as they wish — it would be at their discretion,” Kerry wrote in an April op-ed for the Huffington Post.

“The FCC couldn’t help disabled people access the Internet, give public officials priority access to the network in times of emergency, or implement a national broadband plan….In short, it would take away a key check on the power of phone and cable corporations to do whatever they want with our Internet.”

Naturally, what this does is align the ever flexible Mr. Kerry with the White House technology priority, not the law or its intent, which, strangely, he got right in 1999.  In fact, the goal of the 1996 Act was to “diminish regulatory burdens as competition grew”.  Free Press and other progressive organizations want to add more to that burden, not lessen it all while claiming that doing so will “spur innovation” and “new technologies”.  The history of regulation doesn’t support that formula at all.

The answer to the question originally posed?

If it is Free Press’s version of net neutrality, then I am most definitely “against”.

~McQ

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