I am loath to write the words “net neutrality,” because they have, among political topics, a soporific effect rivaled only by privacy debates and the finer points of tax law. But President Obama, apparently hoping to capitalize on ordinary Americans’ bread-and-butter concerns, has reinvigorated the issue, releasing a video Monday morning that encourages the Federal Communications Commission to classify broadband Internet as a “telecommunications service” under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Here is the White House’s bullet-point advertisement:
I am not an expert on the subject, which is fantastically complex, but the case for giving the FCC this authority seems to me slight.
The fear of net-neutrality proponents, such as Columbia Law School’s Tim Wu, is that
without net-neutrality rules, a firm like Verizon or Comcast can do whatever it likes to content moving across its network. If it wants, it can make a blog that criticized its latest policies unreachable, or block T-Mobile’s customer support. Acting together, the Internet service providers could destroy Netflix by slowing its data to a crawl, making movies impossible to watch.
That seems to be the president’s concern, too. But why he would fear it is a mystery, given that, as he says in the video:
Ever since the Internet was created, it’s been organized around basic principles of openness, fairness, and freedom. There are no gatekeepers deciding which sites you get to access. There are no toll roads on the information superhighway. This set of principles – the idea of “net neutrality” – has unleashed the power of the Internet and given innovators the chance to thrive.
That is, “net neutrality” de facto already exists, without the aid of any governmental entity to enforce it. Why, then, is government enforcement suddenly necessary to maintain the status quo?
Writing at National Review Online in July, Tennessee congresswoman Marsha Blackburn and FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly noted that “on the issue of net neutrality, the [FCC] has already conceded that there is no current harm to consumers . . . [and] bragged that the rules would be ‘prophylactic.’”
I am all for planning ahead, but basing sweeping government action on the argument that “while there is no problem currently, there could be in the future” is hardly persuasive. What couldn’t one justify by that logic?
Now, it may eventually be the case that the complex Internet economy falls prey to quasi-monopolistic forces who abuse consumers, requiring some 21st-century trust-busting. But what is certainly the case is that the Internet has thrived in no small part because of the lack of regulation. A comparatively uninhibited market has tempered the excesses to which large companies may be inclined. Net-neutrality rules would substitute bureaucratic rigmarole for market forces, making those innovators about which the president is so enthusiastic beholden not to consumers, but to a five-person board of commissioners (and its bureaucratic labyrinth) and to the courts. Moreover, there is ample reason to believe that net-neutrality rules — like so much other government regulation — would have sprawling unforeseen consequences. What reason is there at this point to risk that?
Moreover, what government regulation of the Internet does exist is already proving to be a stranglehold on innovation. Writing in the July 15, 2013, issue of National Review, Hudson Institute scholar Christopher DeMuth pointed out the ill effects of the FCC’s allocation of wireless broadband:
The shortage of wireless broadband spectrum is certainly a severe problem. It is needlessly raising the costs and retarding the speed and quality of personal communications (Onion headline: “Internet Collapses Under Sheer Weight of Baby Pictures”). Wireless providers such as Verizon and AT&T have been obliged to raise prices and reduce speeds selectively for heavy users of video and data applications, leading to charges of “discrimination” that the FCC has taken seriously. It is also fostering wasteful commercial strategies, such as AT&T’s ill-fated attempt to acquire T-Mobile, which was really a desperate attempt to acquire spectrum. At the same time, the shortage is retarding long-distance learning and medicine, air- and highway-traffic control, and innumerable business applications, all with immense potential for social betterment. Many on-the-horizon applications, such as continuous remote monitoring of medical patients, self-driving cars, and greatly strengthened cybersecurity for personal and commercial information, simply will not get beyond the pilot stage without large additions of wireless broadband spectrum.
Like every regulatory agency, the FCC tends toward the status quo: Structurally, it is not sufficiently flexible to meet the changing circumstances of the system it regulates, which means that, as Demuth writes, “It is naturally attentive to incumbent firms that know the agency ropes and support its budget, and less so to newbies with unfamiliar ideas that could disrupt the settled plans of its licensees and its staff.” The consequences for potential innovators and entrepreneurs should be obvious.
Perhaps someone more studied in this matter can make the case for the president’s plan, but it is difficult for me to see it as anything more than one more effort by the current administration to bring another sector of the economy more completely under its purview.
The prospect of increased government regulation on markets should always elicit hard questions from conservatives — but especially under this president.