Now that we’ve avoided the shutdown, it’s time to take another look at the Net Neutrality debate. It’s easy to ignore. The Net Neutrality issue is technical, has arguments for and against it, and involves predicting how emerging technologies will affect society.
To get an idea of how eliminating net neutrality rules might play out, imagine that in the frenzy of reducing government, we decide to take the “adopt a highway” campaign to a new level and sell off our roads to private companies. After all, the U.S. highway system is a giant socialist program which takes away our freedom, so why not turn it over to millionaire businessmen who will surely act to preserve freedom for average Americans?
If corporations controlled our highways, it would be reasonable for those corporations to charge for access. Acme Road Building and Maintenance Corp might charge Home Depot a premium to have an exit ramp built in front of their parking lot. Your local hardware store wouldn’t have enough money for similar access. The road company might not see an advantage in paving Main Street, and the death of small businesses will accelerate.
The fact that Acme doesn’t want to provide the same service to all customers when they can get more money for more service is normal. So it’s important for people to understand that despite the right wing rhetoric, the current Net Neutrality rules allow exactly that kind of free market capitalism to occur. Most Net Neutrality advocates say the current rules are too weak.
Current rules allow exactly what Net Neutrality opponents seem to be calling for, so it might be difficult to understand what the fuss is about. Back to Acme. If Acme was owned by the same people who owned Home Depot, then we might have a problem. It would be bad news for Lowes and very bad news for your local hardware store. Potential customers might find it difficult to get to any hardware store other than Home Depot. They might not even know that competitors exists. And that would be bad news for anyone who wants to choose where to purchase their next riding lawnmower. It certainly would not be a blow for free choice in America. Larry Downs sums it up in Forbe’s
The new rules would prohibit wireline broadband providers from blocking their customers’ access to particular websites (perhaps from content providers who compete with the access provider) and would impose extensive new disclosure requirements of how broadband operators manage their networks.
Mr. Downs argues against Net Neutrality by saying existing anti-trust laws can cover any abuses. But it wasn’t existing law that put an end to abuses by Verizon and Comcast; it was public outrage. How effective will public outrage be when our primary carriers of news and opinions are able to control what news and opinions we have access to? The goal of Net Neutrality rules is to preserve free choice by preventing services and information providers from being blocked out.
My road analogy is one of many analogies. The internet unique and still growing and analysts turn to existing models in their attempts to predict and explain the best ways to handle this new phenomenon. An opposing point of view likens net neutrality rules to requiring package companies to pick up and deliver packages without charge. That particular article also suggests that emergency calls may be dropped if all traffic had to be treated equally and a 911 call had to compete with a neighbor’s viewing of a Victoria’s secret show. The emergency call analogy is just sleazy alarmism. Even within the scope of net neutrality rules, emergency calls can be given higher priority than lingerie videos. Your 911 call is more in danger from deregulation than it would be from too much regulation. The package analogy is also flawed, because it neglects to mention that the price of package delivery is kept low, in part, by competition provided by a government sponsored parcel service. Conceivably, we could dispense with net neutrality rules by creating government sponsored ISPs to compete with Verizon, AOL, and Charter.
The internet is becoming the primary medium for news and information. That makes Net Neutrality a supremely important issue. Although the most famous Net Neutrality example involves a dispute between Comcast and Netflix, Net Neutrality issues are a lot more important than your ability to download the Justin Bieber documentary.
America-On-Line, both a content provider and an ISP, recently purchased the Huffington Post and put Arianna Huffington in charge of all of their content. What if Ms. Huffington didn’t not want you to watch Fox News? Without net neutrality rules, AOL wouldn’t have to provide access to Fox for its subscribers. “So What?”, you may say. “Choose another ISP”. But free choice fails in regions with only one ISP to choose from. In fact there are still many regions with none. How much “free choice” do you currently have when choosing an internet service provider? Mobile internet service ( 3G, 4G, etc.) might soon be the primary means of internet access in America. The current watered down rules don’t even apply to mobile internet. They should.
We should treat the internet with the same care that we treat other vital services. Our most important services have been provided by government agencies or private agencies under government regulation. Our military, the best in the world, is made up of government agencies. Phone service, electricity, fire protection, the U.S. highway system, and a number of other vital services are all highly regulated services. When you consider those products and services that the United States is best at providing, it will be clear that regulation has a hand in making it that way. Would you prefer U.S. beef or beef from a nation that doesn’t regulate its food industry?
Net Neutrality rules are about preserving choice, not eliminating it. But more importantly, they’re about protecting one of our most vital resources: information. I’m all for free market, but there are some things that I want my government to protect. Information is damn near the top of that list.
For action or more information, visit Save the Internet. I think it’s a silly name, too.