If our readers have paid any attention to the internet recently, the big fight is net neutrality. Like any topic; there is a great deal of nuance to the disparate opinions on the subject. But what exactly is net neutrality, and why does it matter? Liberty Nation authors Nathan Steelwater and Scott Cosenza are here to break down the facts and show the pro and con arguments for net neutrality.
Net neutrality is the concept that all data on the internet is treated the same. Internet Service Providers (ISPs), therefore, cannot charge differently simply because of the user, website, application, or type of equipment attached. During the Obama administration, the FCC reclassified the internet as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. This gave ISPs the same regulations as other public utilities but guaranteed that these ISPs could not block, slow down, or charge more for websites to receive service. All data on the internet would be treated the same. The United States Telecom Association sued the FCC and claimed that the reclassification was an overreach by the FCC. In June of last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the FCC’s decision.
Ajut Varadaraj Pai, the new chairman of the FCC, proposed a rollback of the Obama-era net neutrality rules and on May 18th, the FCC voted to move forward with scaling back of net neutrality. The first step in the long process was a sixty-day period for public comment and FCC response (thirty days each respectively). Those are the facts. Now for the opinions.
Nathan: I’d like to start with why net neutrality is important. By ensuring that all data on the net is treated the same, it guarantees fair competition and the free access of information. Without net neutrality, ISPs can freely block the content of their competitors or even competitive services and apps altogether, preventing consumers from making informed market decisions. Internet providers, many of which also own news organizations, could choose to block all access to news organizations outside their own corporate umbrella, providing a singular agenda to their customers.
Things like this have already happened. In 2012, AT&T announced that it would block the application FaceTime, a video-calling application unless customers subscribed to a more expensive service plan. In 2011, several smaller ISPs (Cavalier, Frontier, and others) redirected customer searches on Bing and Yahoo to another page. This skipped the search engine’s results and sent them to another page, ensuring the ISPs received referral fees. These are only a few examples, but they demonstrate a clear ability of ISPs to artificially limit a consumer’s access to competitive services.
But let us extrapolate this. Time Warner, who may be the ISP for many of our readers, owns CNN. Without net neutrality, Time Warner would be able to restrict access to news organizations like FOX and ensure that only one side of the story is heard. Net neutrality ensures open and fair competition between ISPs and other services and ensures the free access of information to all. Why wouldn’t we want to protect that?
Scott: Governments generally, and the government of the United States especially, have a pretty poor track record of ensuring any kind of fairness in the marketplace. What those of us who study government and treasure liberty know is that the more regulation that exists, the less beneficial it is for citizens, driving up costs and reducing competition. Regulation may be sold on a health and safety platform, but it is most often bought by anti-competitive rent-seekers who wish to use the state to do what they couldn’t legally do so otherwise– force choices upon others. Only by getting government out of the picture to the extent possible can we make sure the market will provide what people want, and if they want data delivered without packet discrimination, they will be able to buy it.
Let’s have a truth in labeling law that requires ISP’s to offer in clear, concise language that is easily discoverable, what priority they give, if any, and have the consumer decide. Like the label on a package of food with calories and other nutritional information – people can then decide for themselves and vote with their dollars. The miracle of the market, without the heavy hand of government, whose members craft legislation along with their fundraising partners.
How about the good side of data preferences? It’s not all fraudulent search results and the like. What if an ISP wants to offer a surgery clinic a more robust line than the typical user – Is it such a bad idea to allow ISP’s to offer a doctor assisting with an operation via real-time video a faster, wider connection than an insomniac binging on Netflix late one night?
Nathan: Offering a higher speed connection to your customers is already available, and far from the issue. While I don’t agree with the exact way the government is handling net neutrality (treating ISPs the same way we treat utility companies isn’t practical, and there are less cost prohibitive ways to do it), it still needs to be addressed.
Competition is vital to a free market, but a market isn’t free if innovators and entrepreneurs are prevented from entering the market. If we truly treasure liberty, then we must treasure and protect a free and open internet. Net neutrality isn’t just about ensuring competition; net neutrality is a free speech issue.
The internet is currently the freest forum of ideas we have. Given the war the mainstream media is currently waging on conservative thought, removing net neutrality would only provide another tool for liberal telecoms to stifle any message counter to their own agenda. Minimal regulation, the barest bones possible to ensure net neutrality, provides far more preservation of liberty that than allowing corporate America to offer free speech at tiered pricing plan.
Scott: Free speech is guaranteed as against government action, not private actors. If Facebook discriminates against free market advocates, as it does, the answer, painful though it may be, is to get off Facebook, not make a law requiring Zuckerberg to do what you prefer. If an ISP will not offer data connections in a manner a customer requires, the market offers a solution – go across the street. There will likely be another ISP waiting to take your money to give you what you want. If there’s not, then the demand just isn’t there, or more than likely it’s because the government already screwed up the market by granting a local monopoly.
The internet is currently the freest forum of ideas we have. It became such because of a generally hands-off approach by regulators and protection from attempts at meddling by the courts. Inviting the government to increase its involvement in data transmission and reception, ISP’s and their customers will yield the kind of competition we see in the utility markets – almost zero, with high prices for consumers and profits locked in for companies who show little to no innovation. We have all the examples we need of how responsive, fair and mindful of costs increased government regulation is – no thank you.