Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Against “net neutrality”

In a comment to an earlier post, Shelley Shaver warns that today the Federal Communications Commission will begin the long process of regulating the internet through the badly misnamed principle of “net neutrality.” As my friend and editor John Podhoretz said earlier in the month, net neutrality is an “anti-sticky” idea. “No matter what you do,” he said, “you can’t remember what the hell it is.”

Nevertheless, everyone who depends upon the internet—which is, basically, every American with an active social, intellectual, or commercial life—should care about the principle. Under its name, the federal government is joining forces with companies that provide web content to control the ebb and flow of information and services on the internet. Net neutrality hides behind the abstract (and entirely relativistic) conception of fairness, but in truth it is a classic example of rent seeking. The web companies behind it want the aid of government power to obtain a share of net usage that they might not otherwise be able to obtain in an open and unregulated marketplace.

The first beneficiary of the new regulatory régime will be trial lawyers, which explains the Obama administration’s support of net neutrality. As FCC commissioner Robert M. McDowell wrote yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, “The FCC’s action will spark a billable-hours bonanza as lawyers litigate the meaning of ‘reasonable’ network management for years to come.” [NOTE: Broken link fixed.]

And once the legal decisions begin to be handed down, the internet may start looking suspiciously like a contemporary American university campus, where “underrepresented voices” demand inclusion, where some phrases and ideas must not be uttered, and where certain voices are shut out altogether so that the “underrepresented” might be heard. The last thing the federal government should be regulating, because the thing it is least qualified to regulate, is intellectual content. On a university campus, the limited number of classrooms and classroom hours lends a glossy sheen of plausibility to the claim that content must be meted out according to some exalted notion of “fairness.”

But the internet is an infinity of human discourse. There is no end to the ways in which voices can make themselves heard. “Fairness” here is another word for privilege, which the internet exists to undermine and call into question.

Update: The best account of “net neutrality” that I have found belongs to the pseudonymous IT consultant who blogs for ZDNet under the name of Paul Murphy. He writes: “Net neutrality is not, of course, about neutrality—it’s about having government control and monitor what carriers are allowed to transmit, to whom, and at what rates with specific and immediate benefits to bandwidth hogs like [Y]outube and specific and immediate limitations on premium services contracts like those Apple put in place with AT&T to give their iPhone a performance advantage.” Read the whole thing.

Update, II: Meredith Attwell Baker is the other FCC commissioner (along with Robert M. McDowell) to cast her vote in a losing cause against net neutrality. In an op-ed in today’s Washington Post, she explains her opposition, saying that the regulations adopted today are already outdated. They aim to regulate the internet as it was constituted ten to fifteen minutes ago, not the internet that must now struggle against the new regulations to develop and evolve.

Update, III: In the Denver Post, David Harsanyi goes beyond opposing net neutrality to call for abolition of the FCC, which has an “almost irresistible urge to protect the powerful instead” of consumers and innovative startups. In the Wall Street Journal, John Fund reveals who is behind the push for net neutrality.


Stephen Cahaly said...

Thanks to you and Shelley Shaver for bringing this to our attention. Your post, Professor Myers, and the links provide a solid framework of what the shift in power would entail. But I'm confused on what exactly is the substantive origins of "net neutrality?" A fear of loss of power that the Wikileaks drama helped expose? Paul Murphy says it's about government control but that sounds like a consequence of something else. Who's pushing it, the web companies or the regulatory committees? Or is it as vulgar as it seems, the legal, financial, and governmental authorities trying to do with information what the same forces had tried to do with banking, consolidate power into the hands of the few to regulate it more efficiently? Please tell us it's not as despicable as that. FYI: I tried to link to the Wall Street piece yesterday but it's unavailable.

Interpolations said...

As I understand it, the attack on Net Neutrality is less about government control and more about the collusion between goverment and big business as they seek to formalize a relationship that allows ISPs like ATT to tax/charge content providers like CNN for preferential treatment and access to online audiences. Big ISPs benefit because they'd make money, and big content providers benefit because they'd buy access to audiences. A great arrangement for them, but a very bad one, indeed, for the free and open flow of information.


D. G. Myers said...

Among others, net neutrality is being pushed by Google, the parent company of Blogger.

D. G. Myers said...

Yes, Kevin, you have summarized the misleading argument of net-neutrality advocates. See this piece by George Ou, for example.

Interpolations said...

It's not mis-leading. There are two major camps in the debate: those who believe that Internet traffic should be treated equally (Woz, Myers, Neilson) and those who believe that Internet traffic should be "tiered" (Google, Verizon, AT&T, the Feds). Both sides claim to be ardent supporters of net neutrality, but only one is — and it ain't the latter. My only disagreement with you is a small tactical one, really. Where you see a power grab by government, I see a power grab by business who have the lobbyists to influence regulatory policy. That's the only difference I think. Net neutrality as advocated by Google, Verizon, and others sucks.


D. G. Myers said...

But it is not a “power grab by business” to leave a market free and open to competition.

Interpolations said...

If the Google-, ATT-, and Fed-sanctioned version of "net neutrality" wins the day, then the market will be more "free and open," as it were, to those who have the resources to purchase improved access to audiences.


P.S. Two F. Prose titles?

Stephen Cahaly said...

Phew, thank goodness for the techies to explain things to us lit-nuts. I think I got it; the key line of what's driving it is in the Ou link. "So in the name of protecting application and content providers from services that were mistakenly viewed as extortionist, Net Neutrality regulations would actually cripple application and content providers by forcing them to buy more expensive and more congested transit bandwidth." What one interest group sees as extortion, the other the free market? Just don't ask me to repeat all this in the morning. Thanks for the links and raising the awareness.

D. G. Myers said...

Yes, Kevin, but the deception lies in the phrase as it were, because of course a market that, as George Ou puts it, would “outlaw . . . purely voluntary agreements,” is not open in any sense—not even in a slippery analogous sort of sense.

Yoo hoo!

Stephen Cahaly said...

Sweet Jesus. "(From the Fund link) Mr. McChesney told me in an interview that some of his comments have been 'taken out of context.' He acknowledged that he is a socialist and said he was 'hesitant to say I'm not a Marxist.'" It's good to see that McChesney and Co. is putting that historical consciousness to good use. Equality for all, that is, of everyone that you're aware of; ie, cronyism at its absolute worst.

Ibn said...

I enjoy your blog immensely; the criticism is always provocative and going through your archives is a real pleasure.

I've never been motivated to leave a comment before, but your post on net neutrality has motivated me to to do.

First, to say that the Obama Administration supports net neutrality because of the trial lawyers undermines your well-earned credibility. If you hate trial lawyers, that's fine -- they're not interested in esoterica like internet regulation. Rathre, slip and falls and standard negligence are their, er, butter and bread. If lawyers get involved, which I'm sure they will, it will be at the highest levels of corporate law. Think Weil Gotschal or Wilson Sonsini, and those guys are as likely to vote GOP as Democratic. Perhaps more so.

And while I appreciate your generally conservative take on matters public, net neutrality is arguably like antitrust. Now you can oppose the Sherman Act, if you'd like to very paleolibertarian. And you may want to argue that net neutrality is not, in fact, analogous to the Sherman Act.

But you do have to engage the fact that antitrust is an essential part of a free market -- indeed is an essential tool in preserving the free market against rent-seeking businesses. So the question isn't about government intervention, but creating a system free of non-domination.

D. G. Myers said...

Point taken about the politics, Ibn.

About the relevance of the Sherman Antitrust Act, I am less persuaded. Any claim that the internet is a monopoly will not pass the laugh test.

Scott Cunningham said...

One problem, Dr. Myers, with your analysis is that there is no fair and free competitive environment in the internet provider landscape. While an agreement between an ISP and a particular service may be voluntary for those companies, the customer is pretty much stuck with the service that ISP decides to give them. You'll be hard pressed to find many markets in the US where more than two ISPs give service, and many of them are totally locked up by a single ISP.

If there's a healthy competitive market where customers can choose a different ISP if their ISP starts favoring access to services that the customer doesn't want and limiting access to services that they do, then there's no need for network neutrality. But if my ISP suddenly decides that they know better than I do how I want the bandwidth that I pay for to be allocated, the current market doesn't give me any recourse.