Net Neutrality. Pfft.

So now the FCC is in charge of the internet, and Big Brother’s lovers are cheering.  “Big Brother has saved us from a mortal danger that we have been imagining might happen someday!”

The generic argument against government regulation should be the default position for anyone even remotely interested in liberty. Laws (and regulations are laws, although they’re slightly worse than laws because they’re put in place by unelected bureaucrats) should be the last resort, something we turn only after all other alternatives have been tried and have failed.

Net Neutrality sounds like a good idea, but then, so do most new government rules and regulations when they’re new and shiny.  It will be years before we experience all the damage the FCCs involvement has caused, and by then it will be too late to do anything about it.
This is a solution in search of a problem.  The ACLU has a page championing Net Neutrality.  They provide four examples of horrible, horrible things that prove we need it.

From their page:

  1. AT&T’s jamming of a rock star’s political protest. During an August 2007 performance by the rock group Pearl Jam in Chicago, AT&T censored words from lead singer Eddie Vedder’s performance. The ISP, which was responsible for streaming the concert, shut off the sound as Vedder sang, “George Bush, leave this world alone” and “George Bush find yourself another home.” By doing so, AT&T, the self-advertised presenting sponsor of the concert series, denied viewers the complete exclusive coverage they were promised. Although Vedder’s words contained no profanity, an AT&T spokesperson claimed that the words were censored to prevent youth visiting the website from being exposed to “excessive profanity.” AT&T then blamed the censorship on an external Website contractor hired to screen the performance, calling it a mistake and pledging to restore the unedited version of Vedder’s appearance online.
  2. Comcast’s throttling of online file-sharing through BitTorrent. In 2007, Comcast, the nation’s largest cable TV operator and second largest ISP, discriminated against an entire class of online activities in 2007 by using deep packet inspection to block file transfers from customers using popular peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent, eDonkey, and Gnutella. Comcast’s actions, which were confirmed in nationwide tests conducted by the Associated Press, were unrelated to network congestion, since the blocking took place at times when the network was not congested. Comcast blocked applications that are often used to trade videos — pirated content but also much legitimate content. Critics noted that Comcast hopes to sell online video itself. The FCC subsequently took action against Comcast for this abuse; Comcast stopped the throttling but also challenged the order in court and won, leading to a crisis in enforcement of network neutrality.
  3. Verizon Wireless’ censorship of NARAL Pro-Choice America. In late 2007, Verizon Wireless cut off access to a text-messaging program by the pro-abortion-rights group NARAL that the group used to send messages to its supporters. Verizon stated it would not service programs from any group “that seeks to promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users.” Verizon Wireless reversed its censorship of NARAL only after widespread public outrage.
  4. Telus’ blocking of striking workers’ web site. In 2005, the Canadian telecom, involved in a bitter labor dispute, blocked its Internet subscribers from accessing a website run by the union that was on strike against Telus.

Let’s examine each of these incidents:

#1  AT&T censored a show they sponsored.  Dumb, but not a net neutrality issue.  Nice try, but a rather desperate one.

#2 Comcast’s throttling of BitTorent traffic was a legitimate concern, a real net neutrality issue.   It’s been fought in the courts via lawsuits and rulings have gone back and forth.  They’ve stopped the practice for now.

#3 Solved via Public Outrage.  No government intervention necessary.

#4 The American Civil Liberties Union should realize that Canada is a sovereign nation, and not under U.S. jurisdiction.

So with all their resources, the ACLU could only find four instances of net neutrality violation, and only one of them was a real, legitimate problem.  (It should be noted that there is another one in the works, (which wasn’t an issue when their page was created) with Comcast again, demanding payments from a third party who is doing some streaming for Netflix.)

Here are just two alternatives that might work far better than regulation:

Make it easy for competitors.  Big businesses often clamor for rules and regulations that provide significant barriers to entry for any competition, and the Government usually gleefully complies. (“Look, we passed a law.  We did something!”)  A better approach is to remove those barriers and make it easier for competitors to punish poorly performing companies in the marketplace.  In the face of real competition Comcast, for instance, would have to change their business model (“Whenever possible, be a complete dick”) or go out of business.

Limit mergers.  When an internet provider also owns content producers there is an inherent conflict of interest, a built in incentive to give priority to their own content and/or limit access to competitor’s content.  Carriers shouldn’t be allowed to buy, or be bought by, content providers.  For those who are already owned by content providers, the very first time this happens existing anti-trust legislation should be used to force a break-up.

These are just two ideas that come to mind (and I’m not all that thrilled with the last one).  You’ve probably got better ones – please add them to the comments.

The proponents of the FCC getting their nose in the tent have all kinds of nightmare scenarios that might happen, someday, somehow, if they aren’t given control.  People who love liberty would rather wait to see if such problems occur, if they occur often enough to be a real problem, and what other solutions can be tried to resolve them.  But no, we can’t do that.  We must have Big Brother jump in and solve all our problems even when they’re not problems yet.

There are always unintended consequences to laws. Always. They’re often unpredictable. They usually make the problem worse or give rise to other, bigger problems. We have no idea just how bad this is going to get, but bear in mind the FCC is the organization that went absolutely ape-shit when a 40 year old nipple was on TV for 1.5 seconds.  And now they’re making rules for the internet.

FSM help us all.

3 Comment(s)

  1. Bringing in the government to solve an imagined internet neutrality problem is like filling your house with snakes to solve an imagined mouse problem. Assuming the snakes reproduce, expand their mandate, take over the house and then strike a deal with the rats to eat only the small mice.

    Jose C Silva | Dec 28, 2010 | Reply

  2. Force acces providers to let others use their network. This has worked well in South Korea and France, but it is harder in countries where the network is private. In my country, the land-line monopolist must give access to anyone to the last dirty mile for $12/month. This has caused serious (A)DSL competition. The telephone network was laid in the time they were state-owned.
    This has not worked for the cable companies, alas. They have successfully argued that they laid down their own network.

    Eur van Andel | Dec 28, 2010 | Reply

  3. I’m glad you suggested a limitation of mergers. From the left you have a sea of people who want to give the government lots and lots of power. From the right you have people who want to give big corporations lots and lots of power. The question isn’t whether big government is better than big business or vice versa, the question we should be asking is do we want to give ANY one single entity an inordinate amount of power? We hear horror stories of three hour lines at the DMV, but what about the three hour hold time when you call Dell?

    The problem is that there are some industries that can’t really foster competition on their own. Take telecom for example. It’s not like you can have ten separate companies running overhead lines all over the place. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Nobody wants all of their roadside lined with ten sets of line poles everywhere, and it wouldn’t make sense for a startup today to run a whole new system of lines nationwide. So it makes sense that one company makes the infrastructure, but is forced by law to allow its competitors to lease bandwidth.

    So many Libertarians are essentially anarchists in disguise. They miss the point that it’s not just government, but any large entity with a lot of power tends to be grossly inefficient at what it does, privately-owned or not. Glad to see you’re more pragmatically-minded.

    GH | Jan 11, 2011 | Reply

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