A thought about Net Neutrality

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Many of my fellow conservative bloggers have been beating the drum loudly in opposition to proposals for "Net Neutrality." I can understand their skepticism -- truth-in-labeling laws don't apply to legislation and net neutrality is no more likely to be about neutral handling of internet data than NAFTA is a simple declaration of free trade between the U. S., Canada, and Mexico. Special provisions and sneaky codicils find their way into what should be a simple expression of a simple idea. I wouldn't be shocked if a Democrat net neutrality proposal in fact imposed net bias through some obscure amendment passed in the dead of night.

Nevertheless, the concept of net neutrality is not one that conservatives should dismiss out of hand. This concept is not a Fairness Doctrine for the internet that would require every website to provide equal time for every point of view. It is the simple notion that packets should be routed by the backbone and by ISPs without regard to the contents, source, or destination, in the same way that the phone company connects calls and the postal service delivers mail. Only in a case of abuse (e.g., denial-of-service attack) should the ISP care about what data is going where.

It's a mistake to think about this issue in terms of the free market. There are high barriers to entry to the ISP market; one of the biggest is getting local government permission to run your cables or build your towers on, over, or under their property. Where I live, we have two choices -- the phone company and the cable company. If both providers choose to allow their customers access only to a limited number of "partner" websites (imposing the cable TV tiering model on the internet), I wouldn't have any alternatives, and it might mean I could no longer read my favorite conservative bloggers and news sites.

An internet that routes data without discriminating based on content, source, or destination is what we have now, for the most part. There is now a low barrier to entry to publish your information and make it available for the world to see. If ISPs begin to discriminate in favor of certain sites, it may mean bloggers would have to pay a high fee to each ISP to gain access to those customers. You might also see ISPs pressured by the usual suspects on the left to cut off access to conservative websites.

(To the argument that ISPs aren't engaged in this kind of discrimination yet: I don't think they will until they feel comfortable that net neutrality is dead and buried. If they were to begin now, it would build popular support for net neutrality.)

The future of the internet as a medium for free speech and public accountability needs true net neutrality -- an internet infrastructure that passes data along without regard to content, source, or destination.

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5 Comments

Mike Mansur said:

Your argument about the high barriers to entry somewhat invalidating the market as a regulator seems valid, but I still see great potential for abuse by government if it is allowed to be the arbiter of what is fair and legitimate on the web.

Perhaps the solution is to have an extremely general, one sentence Net Neutrality law:

"Internet Service Providers shall treat all web traffic as equal without regard for its contents, source, or destination, except in cases of abuse which shall be defined as:
• denial-of-service attacks
• child pornography
• or _______________________ (other specific abuses that would have to be laid out).”

Mike Mansur said:

Or perhaps such a law would only be acceptable if it were a Constitutional Amendment so as to make its alteration more difficult.

Mike Mansur said:

I think your argument about high barriers to entry perhaps invalidating the market as a regulating force is valid. However, I still think that allowing the government to be the arbiter of what is fair and permissible speech on the web is very dangerous. Perhaps the best solution would be to have a one sentence law that says something along the lines of:

“Internet service providers shall allow all data to pass without regard to the contents, source, or destination except in cases of abuse which shall be defined as:
• Denial-of-service attack
• Child Pornography
• __________________ (whatever other pre-defined and tightly-defined abuses as may be necessary)”.

sidburgess Author Profile Page said:

I agree Michael.

And Mike, to your point, I think the government IS the best provider of "fair weights and balances". If a company is paying a local provider for internet, that ISP should be held accountable to ensure that that company gets the same bang for their single dollar that another, perhaps larger company is getting.

To me, this is little different than our regulators that make sure that 1 gallon of milk is in the jug I buy at the store. I don't want to have to read the fine print in order to determine my risk that I wont get what I assume I am paying for.

I agree with keeping it simple, but I am afraid it will take a few more words than that to meet legal requirements.

Mike Mansur Author Profile Page said:

Sid,
I’m suggesting that if the net neutrality law is anything more than a very simple statement then it has tremendous potential to be abused by politically-motivated bureaucrats or a regulation czar - I.E. Cass Sunstein. Also, don’t forget that large companies can afford to hire lobbyists to get complex regulations tilted in their favor.

If you are only suggesting that the government should ensure that all packets are treated equally, then we agree, but do you really think that the political class will pass up an opportunity to create a complex set of regulations that will directly or indirectly allow them to squelch free speech?

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 8, 2010 3:50 AM.

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