The Actuality of Net Neutrality

Barack Obama recently revealed his plan for a “free and open Internet” in a YouTube video released by the White House, which has prompted me to round-up a number of interesting and very useful critiques of Net Neutrality.

We get the small business entrepreneur’s perspective from Rob Tyree, owner of Las Vegas based digital content distributor Fiberhub, who wrote a great piece for in which he explains why he “can’t support Net Neutrality as it’s being discussed today” even though his business would potentially stand to benefit. Grant Babcock of steps through in detail the proposed regulatory measures in his article and ponders the dangers of giving government officials power to control the behaviour of ISPs. Finally, Adam Summers of the Foundation for Economic Education provides fascinating insight into the earliest origins of the idea of Net Neutrality in his 2008 article and explains the positive role that price discrimination plays in our economic lives.

The details and technicalities of Net Neutrality in the form of government regulations has been quite excellently critiqued by the authors mentioned above and others, but I think it might be instructive to analyse how Obama sold his plan for a “free and open Internet” to American citizens (and indeed the world) in his speech, and to offer my own rebuttals to some of his main arguments.

Obama begins by acknowledging the profound positive impact the Internet has had, not just on American society, but the world.

“An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life. By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known.”

He then further acknowledges that the Internet is already free and open, by virtue of the design of the communication protocols that it uses. This brief flirtation with the truth only serves to remind us precisely why the Internet doesn’t need any government intervention, but as any good politician does he quickly abandons reality and retreats back into the far more familiar surroundings of economic fallacies, and engages in some general scaremongering.

““Net neutrality” has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation — but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted. We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas…”

The first point to make about this argument against the freedom for ISPs to discriminate in the same way other businesses do is that restricting access to markets and “picking winners and losers” for services and ideas is precisely what government does and has been doing for centuries. Here, then, Obama is using one of the main arguments against government intervention into markets as an argument for his plan for government intervention into the ISP market! It takes a man of great hubris and arrogance, but not so great reasoning skills or else a pathological talent for deception, to stand before an entire nation and do such a thing. It takes a politician.

Obama continues:

“The rules I am asking for are simple, common-sense steps that reflect the Internet you and I use every day, and that some ISPs already observe…”

The term “common sense” is generally used to mean good judgement, which is the ability to make considered decisions about something. Judgement requires knowledge. The more knowledge you have the better judgements you can make. Who in society can have better knowledge of what people want from Internet Service Providers than ISPs themselves? No one, not even Obama or his policy makers who spend all day looking at statistics. And who has greater incentive to give those people what they want (i.e. free and neutral Internet access) than the very businesses that will go bust if they fail to do so? No one, not even Obama and his benevolent band of bureaucratic brothers. After all, they won’t be looking for new jobs or worrying about how they’re going to pay the mortgage if their judgements turn out to be inaccurate and their plan fails.

Obama then lists the specific behaviours he wants to ban and gives his arguments as to why.

  • “No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business.

  • No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others — through a process often called “throttling” — based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.

  • Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.

  • No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.”

The Internet as we know it has been around for the best part of two decades now. I’ve been surfing the web for sixteen years. In that time I have used several different ISPs in a few different countries, including the UK, Ireland, South Korea and Australia, and none of them restricted the freedom or openness of my Internet access. My degree is in computer science and I used to work in the I.T. industry, so I have the smarts to figure out if and when such a thing is happening. Each ISP I’ve ever had a contract with was perfectly free to restrict and filter my Internet connection as much as they pleased, and yet they never did. Some, I suspect, did engage in throttling at weekends, but rarely, if ever, did it reduce the speed below that which they were contractually obliged to provide.

Interestingly, my only experience to date of any lack of openness or freedom of my Internet access has been recently with my current ISP in the UK, which now prevents me from accessing certain BitTorrent sites. But what must be understood is that my ISP is being legally coerced into reducing value for its own customers by the music and film industries armed with the blunt State instruments of Intellectual property rights and copyright law. In my experience market forces, or in other words a lack of government regulation, has never led to ISPs engaging in the behaviours Obama wishes to ban.

I don’t know how many other people in America and the rest of western world can say the same thing of their own experiences with ISPs, but given that the Internet’s global economic and social impact has only continued to expand and that it hasn’t been abandoned by hoards of disgruntled or disillusioned ISP customers, or indeed taken over by corporations, I think we may safely assume that it is the vast majority. In all likelihood instances of ISPs failing to deliver the level of service they promised by consistently engaging in the behaviours Obama intends to ban are most probably relatively few and far between; and hardly any, if any, have been peacefully persuaded to do the bidding of corporations or to become “gatekeepers” of on-line markets, which Obama implies is inevitable without government intervention.

No one wants their Internet connection restricted or filtered against their will or without their knowledge, but there is nothing to suggest that these behaviours are a significant problem anywhere in the world where ISPs operate relatively freely, and aren’t under the thumb of non-democratic governments. Furthermore, there’s nothing to suggest that the spontaneous freedom and openness of the Internet as we know and love it is about to disappear either; the very notion is simply a fear of uncertainty and the future, one expertly used by politicians like Obama to convince people that the Internet needs the government to survive. But if we just look at the world around us, then we see that the opposite is true: the Internet needs the absence of government to survive and thrive. The only places where the Internet isn’t neutral, free and open is where ISPs operate under threat of force from the State – e.g. China.

The Internet is an incredible blessing. Its anarchic nature has given humanity a way in which to flourish without the enormous drag of small groups of people (i.e. governments) forcing their choices and plans upon everyone else and slowing its progress. That, fundamentally, is why people like me who have been surfing the web for a long time value it so highly, and why the rest of the world’s people continue to flock to it; humans are drawn to freedom, like ramblers are drawn to wide open fields. Libertarian economists and free-thinkers have been logically deducing and telling of the benefits of individual liberty for a century or more, but the Internet is now showing us. And it’s always much more compelling to be shown something than it is to be told about it.

If ISPs do fall prey to government regulation in America and perhaps, in time, elsewhere in the world, then the least worst thing that could happen is that Internet access gets more expensive and quality of service stagnates as those ISPs currently dominating the market benefit from less competition. The very worst thing that could happen is that these “carefully designed” (as Obama phrased it in his speech) regulatory powers end up enabling the very thing they were intended to prevent, which is by no means an unprecedented or even uncommon occurrence in the modern era of democratic interventionism. If that happens then the Internet would become censored under the same justifications by which governments currently censors television/radio content; and the free and open Internet that enabled the emancipation of information and communication at the end of the 20th century, and which is now facilitating the birth of the peer to peer economy and the decentralisation of banking, could become something future generations have to break the law or travel to certain parts of the world to avail of.

From liberty the Internet was born, and freedom of action for all the individuals who make up the groups necessary for its functioning is its life force and rocket fuel. Under government the Internet will wither and perhaps die.

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