Net neutrality is a grab-bag of cartoonish anti-corporate populism. The introduction of net neutrality rules by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in late February is a threat to the freedom of the internet and its capacity for continued innovation and improvement.
The key principle underpinning net neutrality, introduced by Colombia University Media Law Professor Timothy Wu in 2003, is that every byte of data on the internet should be treated equally.
Clearly, the notion that everything on the internet is valuable and worthwhile is a hilarious proposition to anyone who has actually been on the internet.
The depth of misunderstanding regarding the workings of markets and innovation currently on display by advocates of net neutrality is beyond parody.
The great fear of net neutrality supporters—and the focus of their considerable advocacy efforts—is that large internet service providers (ISPs) and cable companies will attempt to make a profit using their control of internet download speeds and access to websites.
ISPs such as Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and Charter have the technology to block access to certain internet sites. They can also slow download speeds for some sites and increase speeds for others.
The potential for this activity on the part of ISPs presents a range of possibilities of which net neutrality advocates are fearful. In the future, wealthy clients of ISPs—such as major media corporations—may be able to pay for priority service. This would mean that their websites would be given quicker downloading speeds than their competitors.
At the extreme, companies could even pay ISPs to block the websites of their rivals altogether.
The concern of net neutrality supporters is not that major media outlets will find a new way to slug it out with each other for market share, but that everyone else—bloggers, niche news sources and small websites generally—will be priced out of the market for priority service and consigned to a much poorer internet experience.
As a result, a ‘fast lane, slow lane’ internet would emerge where internet users would eschew websites unable to pay for priority service in favour of those that are.
According to net neutrality believers, this would constitute ‘corporations controlling the internet’ and undermine the internet’s democratic and supposedly ‘free’ principles.
This is what the FCC ruled against in late February. It has made it illegal for broadband providers to block or speed up access for a fee, charge for priority service for content providers, and reclassified broadband access as a telecommunication service, meaning it is subject to much heavier regulation generally.
The first thing to note about these rulings is that they are totally unnecessary. Even though ISPs have been able to do this for most of the time since the internet began, instances of it occurring have been incredibly rare. The American Civil Liberties Union, an enthusiastic supporter of net neutrality, lists only four incidents, none of which have occurred since 2007.
Secondly, if this did become common practice, consumers would simply choose ISPs that allowed them to access the entire internet or at least the websites that they wished to see. Individual consumers would still decide what they access on the internet and how.
And if there were websites that no ISP offered access to, such as obscure blogs, then that would create a market gap for entrepreneurs to exploit, paving the way for greater competition that would drive down prices and improve services.
Thirdly, the concept of net neutrality betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nexus between innovation and truly free markets. Innovation rarely evolves evenly. Often new innovations require a privileged elite to provide a market for the early stages of their development. Over time, refinements, economies of scale, and additional complementary innovation, along with healthy competition in a free market, would eventually make those products for everyone else. Think air travel, cars, telephones, mobiles, plasma televisions, electricity and the internet itself.
It is almost certain this process would occur if consumers were able to pay for improved and quicker access to the internet. If, in attempting to gain an advantage over competitors, major media corporations develop greater advancements in internet service provision that would eventually be available to ordinary consumers, then they should be congratulated for providing the initial market that enabled the internet to get better for everyone. Their efforts should not earn the ire of net neutrality campaigners complaining that such processes betray the internet’s core principles.
And besides, what is wrong with a successful company leveraging its success to offer a better service to its customers? The only reason it has accrued the economic power to do so in the first place is because it has provided a valuable service or product that has proven popular with consumers over the long-term.
A salient historical precedent exists. In 1888, Almon Brown Strowger suspected that a corrupt telephone operator was redirecting calls meant for his business and sending them to a competitor.
To combat this, he invented the automatic telephone exchange which removed human interference in telephone communications.
Only a truly free market can accommodate innovation in this manner. Government regulation of the internet of any sort would compromise the speed and depth of innovation at the expense of everyone.
Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai (the FCC passed the new rules 3-2, voting along party lines) pointed to Europe as an example. Europe largely treats the internet as a public utility, which Pai believes is the reason Europe has slower download speeds than the US. Pai concluded that the ‘FCC’s net neutrality regulatory regime is a solution that won’t work in search of a problem that doesn’t exist’.
Unsurprisingly, US President Barack Obama is an ardent supporter of net neutrality, claiming the FCC will keep the internet ‘open and free’. Indeed, he has been accused by some of interfering and pressuring the FCC into making their ruling.
If US legislators and net neutrality advocates really want to protect the rights of internet users, they should call for the removal of barriers to entry for up-and-coming ISPs. Net neutrality advocates argue that the huge cost of rolling out a high speed broadband internet cable network prevents new players from entering the market, which consequently halts the development of competition.
However, governments charge excessive amounts for the rights to install underground cables and attach cables to publicly owned utility poles.
Indeed, according to the US National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, these fees can double the cost of network construction. Furthermore, a system of kickbacks has emerged where ISPs—in order to have their installations approved—must deliver services to areas where they aren’t demanded and even deliver free broadband to government buildings.
Removing these barriers would increase competition and allow a more vibrant ISP sector to serve smaller websites and facilitate their emergence without compromising the innovation dividend paid for by the big clients of big ISPs.
New technology and innovation always attracts moral scares. Social media is meant to have ramped up liberalism’s atomising effect, yet we would not have had the Arab Spring, Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution, or the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong this year without Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
At the Y20 summit of July 2014, a group of young people gave a standing ovation as the summit communiqué was being finalised. They were applauding the addition of a clause supporting net neutrality that had just been voted on—with almost unanimous support—that would appear in the communiqué.
The Y20—framed as a youth version of the G20—brought bright young people from all the G20 nations to Sydney. It is profoundly disturbing that a group of young people—who may well become their countries’ leaders—should so enthusiastically support government regulation of the internet.
Net neutrality is simply techno-socialism— the application of an economic system to an innovation it itself could never have created. Indeed, the FCC rulings betray the free and unbridled pioneer spirit of the internet itself.