President Obama recently shared his view that ‘the Internet as we know it’ is in jeopardy, unless the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) swiftly adopts new regulations to ensure ‘Net neutrality‘. He claims the new rules are needed so Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot be the ‘gatekeepers’ that get to decide which content consumers have access to, nor control access speed. The principle behind the notion of Net neutrality is that “Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.”
First, let’s ask this question: what real problem(s) are these new regulations intended to solve? Is the Internet now broken and needing to be fixed? Are most people unhappy with their Internet access? The answer is no. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, “Americans really like the online service they currently have and strongly oppose so-called “net neutrality” efforts that would allow the federal government to regulate the Internet.”
Net neutrality supporters argue that net neutrality will ensure that free and unfettered access continues, by making sure Internet access providers don’t control who gets to access certain websites. President Obama implies that big Internet providers currently wield too much power over access to content, and that they are somehow stifling free access. He claims principles of “net neutrality” have always been part of the Internet from its beginnings, but must be preserved by these new rules so that the Internet remains “free”. Let’s take a closer look at the definition of net neutrality.
Some say net neutrality, the idea that Internet access providers must treat all content equally, is
… similar to the engineering concept known as the “end-to-end principle,” which dates to the early days of the Internet. This concept holds that “intelligence” (i.e., processing of information) should be confined to the two ends of the network: the origination of content and receipt by the end user, or consumer. In between, the pipes connecting these pockets of intelligence should be “dumb,” i.e., confined to simply transporting content without modifying it.
Yet in practice, this “neutrality” principle has always been enforced loosely, for several reasons. One is the recognition that in fact there are often good reasons for prioritizing some content over other content. “For instance, network operators have long actively managed their networks to filter out spam and to ensure network security. Network operators consider each of these functions on a case-by-case basis, rather than apply an unbreakable rule built into the fabric of this ever-changing technology.”
Another factor that enters into this discussion is, of course, the free market. In a free marketplace there are always consumers willing to pay more for premium access. This is an essential aspect of a free market, not a threat to the Internet as we know it, as the President grandiosely and falsely claims.
Yet another factor involved in varying prioritization of data is technical. Different types of data require higher or lower levels of bandwidth and speed. For example, the data transfers involved in reading a blog or a website are slower and smaller that that required for viewing a video or for conducting a phone or webcam conversation. This kind of traffic requires regulation if the Internet is to run smoothly and effectively.
In a field that is one of the America’s best and brightest–, technology and communications– we must guard the freedoms that allowed the Internet to flourish and innovate. Turning the Internet into a public utility subject to more government regulation does not seem a good prescription for encouraging a climate of innovation. Does government regulation produce creativity and competition, or does it rather stifle them? Besides, it is not as if the current Internet is not under laws that bring protections to the public. In fact, “existing federal competition laws and consumer protection laws — and strict penalties — protect Americans from harmful ISP behavior.”
Finally, here’s what I view as the truly Orwellian aspect of this. President Obama says unless we act now and impose these brand new, unprecedented rules, we will lose the Internet as we now know it– because the big bad ISPs are actively suppressing people’s access to the Internet and websites. Where is the evidence for this? In any case the rules he is proposing grant huge power to a Federal government agency (FCC) to oversee and regulate how the Internet works. Introducing new levels of bureaucracy into a system that has been working well ( precisely due to light regulation and free market principles) is a sure path to higher costs and ultimately, less neutrality. If the Internet becomes a “public utility”, it can be taxed. And once the government controls costs, how soon is it until they will also be in a position to regulate content? Judge Napolitano sums it up well in this video, arguing that the Internet was created by a free market, and that these new FCC rules introduce unnecessary bureaucracy into the system making it less free, more expensive, and in danger of government censorship and control.
As you may have heard, today the FCC narrowly passed the new rules, which are expected to face many legal challenges ahead.