If a Free Internet Is for Us, Who Would Be Against It?

One of the more astonishing things going on in the arena of American political discourse is the debate over net neutrality. What is astonishing is that there would be any sizable number of people outside the internet service provider (ISP) industry that would have any objection to it. But, sure enough, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on February 26th to protect net neutrality, the vote was not unanimous, but was 3 to 2 along party lines. [1]

It is tempting to think that those who oppose a free internet are somehow missing the point. Or, perhaps, that is wishful thinking. That there are voting individuals of sound mind who honestly believe that ISPs should be able to control what their customers view on the internet, or how well they can view it, is too terrible to contemplate. So it is to be earnestly hoped that there is some misunderstanding afoot.

Perhaps a clue to the misunderstanding can be found in the concerns voiced by one of the dissenting FCC commissioners, Ajit Pai. He said that the new FCC rules constitute government meddling in a vibrant and competitive market. In other words, he opposes net neutrality on free market principles. 

Now certainly Mr. Pai knows better than that. He’s an FCC commissioner after all, and must know that rules preserving net neutrality are precisely the opposite of interference in the free market. We will have to ponder his motives in making the statement that he did. But since there seem to be ordinary citizens of an honest bent adopting the same position as Mr. Pai, some illumination as to what is actually at stake might serve the public good.  

ISPs that specialize in delivering content to consumers, such as Time Warner, Comcast, and AT&T, have found themselves in a strong position because, most often, a specific company provides the only option available in a given area, and has, essentially, no competition. [2] This puts them in a position to strong arm internet content providers.    

“This was effectively illustrated in the recent Netflix-vs-Comcast standoff when Comcast demanded Netflix pay additional charges (above what Netflix was already paying for bandwidth). When Netflix initially refused, Comcast customers with Netflix service started reporting download speeds so slow that some customers quit Netflix. These speed problems seemed to resolve themselves right around the time Netflix agreed to Comcast's demands.”  

The fact that ISPs such as Comcast are in such a position creates perverse incentives.

“It would have been relatively inexpensive for Comcast to add capacity. But why should it? Monopolies such as Comcast have no real incentive to upgrade their networks. There is in fact an incentive to not upgrade since a limited commodity commands a higher price than a bountiful one.”  

Given these circumstances, it is easy to see that charging internet content providers a premium for faster internet speeds would be a wealth creating strategy for ISPs that specialize in delivering internet content to consumers. But rules that mandate net neutrality prohibit exactly that. Net neutrality requires that all internet content be treated the same. 

Opponents of net neutrality complain that it interferes with the free market. But it is plain that it does the exact opposite of that. Much business is conducted over the internet nowadays, and for many businesses it is impossible to be successful without an internet presence. If ISPs were permitted to charge a premium for the fastest internet speeds, small and start-up businesses would be disadvantaged in comparison with large and established ones, and competition would be thereby restricted. Free markets involve competition, and what promotes competition promotes the free market. Net neutrality, therefore, promotes the free market.  

The mistake that is made in thinking that net neutrality interferes with the free market comes from the errant belief that a free market is one without any government regulations. But markets must be regulated on some level, otherwise there would be no enforceable contracts. If there were no regulations, business would be conducted at the point of a gun. The manner in which drug lords do business is a good example of what a regulation free business climate looks like. It is obvious, then, that for there to be a free market some regulation is necessary. Regulations that enhance competition promote rather than hinder the free market.

But there is an even more important reason why net neutrality must be preserved. ISPs that can restrict internet content can also block it. It is pernicious enough when an ISP, which should be making money through fees charged to its customers, creates a distorted internet business climate through charging premiums to internet content providers. Even worse would be an ISP that became motivated to block certain political content. 

The very best aspect of the internet is the avenue it has opened for the free exchange of ideas. One doesn’t need to have a great deal of money behind him in order to get his views and insights before the public. The internet has democratized the dissemination of opinions and information to an extent previously unimagined. An ISP that sought to arrest this trend would be, put simply, a public menace. But only a free and open internet, protected by net neutrality rules, can ensure that no ISP will ever be in a position to accomplish such a thing. 

Jack Quirk