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Next Up for Nationalization: the Internet
Network neutrality means less technological innovation -- and less freedom, too.


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Phil Kerpen

Following the nationalization of investment banks, Fannie and Freddie, consumer banks, and private insurance companies, taxpayers are likely asking: What’s left for the federal government to nationalize?

How about the Internet?

Network neutrality, or net neutrality, is the beneficent-sounding name for sweeping new government regulatory power that would prohibit Internet service providers from innovating in their own networks. This could lead to much less broadband investment by private companies, and could potentially force government subsidization, control, and outright nationalization of the Internet. The implications of this are chilling.

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President-elect Obama and most congressional Democrats — under pressure from groups like Free Press, MoveOn.org, and corporate heavyweight Google — favor a network-neutrality regime. In its strictest form, such a regime would require every bit that travels over a network to be treated the same way. That might sound fair in theory, but it means big problems in practice. If broadband providers can’t manage their network traffic, they can’t offer high-quality, high-value services that are free from the degradation of bandwidth hogs — like teenagers who download huge amounts of bootleg movies, music, and games from file-sharing networks.

Robert Kahn and David Farber, the technologists known respectively as the father and grandfather of the Internet, have been highly critical of network-neutrality mandates.  Kahn has pointed out that to incentivize innovation, network operators must be allowed to develop new technologies within their own networks first — something that network-neutrality mandates could prevent. Farber has urged Congress not to enact net-neutrality mandates that would prevent significant improvements to the Internet.

Without the flexibility to develop technologies that can most efficiently serve customers while generating revenue, there will be less private investment in upgrading the capacity of the Internet. Larry Lessig of Stanford, a leading proponent of net neutrality, says openly that it will lead to less private investment in the Internet and therefore will require the government to step in with the investment of tax dollars. Lessig’s rationale is that “Broadband is infrastructure — like highways, if not railroads.”

Vint Cerf, Google’s chief net-neutrality propagandist, agrees. Cerf calls for the effective nationalization of the Internet, arguing that “incentives could be provided that would render the Internet more like the public road system … not owned by the private sector,” with its use “essentially open to all.”

Not only does the Internet in its current form work much better, and improve much more quickly, than government-run highways and railroads. But anyone who knows anything about highway and railroad contracts knows that large-scale infrastructure management by the government invites politically motivated deal-making as well as rampant fraud and abuse.

Yet the greatest danger of network neutrality may be the outright censorship of speech that it promises. Here’s an example: University of Sunderland professor Alex Lockwood says nationalization of the Internet is one way to get a handle on the problem, in his view, of scientists skeptical of global warming who use the Internet to disseminate their research. His reasoning shows how easily the rationale for regulation can creep from network structure to content control:

I would argue that climate disinformation online is a form of cultural and political malware every bit as threatening to our new media freedoms, used not to foster a forum for open politics but to create, in Nancy Fraser’s term, a “multiplicity of fragmented publics” that harms not only our democracy, but our planet.

Just like that, the American ideal of pluralism is dismissed as fragmentation, while free speech gives way to political correctness. Whatever you think about the global warming debate, a similar case can be constructed for any controversial issue, making a government-run or government-controlled Internet subject to political manipulation that, even if well-intentioned, would serve to shut down our greatest forum for free speech.

Supporters of network neutrality won’t admit to any of this. In fact, they’ll tell you the opposite — that network neutrality will preserve your freedoms. In an ironic twist, one of the scare tactics they use is the idea that phone and cable companies may start blocking access to political websites. Of course, this is exceedingly unlikely in a competitive marketplace where customers can take their business elsewhere. But it is very possible in a world of government monopoly.

It all starts with the nice-sounding slogan: network neutrality. Buyer beware.

-- Mr. Kerpen is director of policy for Americans for Prosperity and chairman of the Internet Freedom Coalition.



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