Net Neutrality Is About Money, Not Freedom


By: R. Scott Raynovich

The Net Neutrality War is back. You would think it was World War III on the Internet. All the hysteria and political earnestness. Your Internet rights are going to be taken away! They're going to stop allowing you to binge-watch Netflix at work!

This is all nonsense. The Internet will proceed and people will use it, whatever happens -- though I prefer that it continue to blossom outside the bureaucracy of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Net Neutrality's core principal -- that the FCC should regulate the Internet and arbitrate the fair use of the Internet services -- is absurd.

The Net Neutrality War can easily get bogged down in hours of legal minutiae and wonky telecom esoterica, but it's really just about one thing: The new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai would like to roll back the FCC's 2015 Net Neutrality order, which for the first time reclassified fixed and mobile Internet providers as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. In other words, the FCC wanted to regulate the Internet as it does your phone service, and now it does.

That's it.

I don't believe this has anything to do with "Net Neutrality," which doesn't actually exist. Net Neutrality is a creation of powerful PR fantasists. It's like Clothing Neutrality, or Food Neutrality. The Internet is a commercial service with many flavors. Should you have the right to eat any food you want, whenever you want? The problem is that you have to buy it, and you can't always afford sushi.

The Net Neutrality debate is really about money. Google, Facebook, and Netflix want you to have the right to free unlimited bandwidth to download social media and movies, because they don't generally pay for it. They want to lock that in.

But bandwidth costs money. And it needs to be built, bought, and sold on a free market. That's where real freedom lies.

I'm not sure how the FCC regulating how the bandwidth is bought and sold makes it better. It's different than legacy phone service. I'm happy to have 911 service. I'm also happy that the FCC regulates the spectrum, so that the whole world wouldn't start blasting the same spectrum through the air, with who knows what consequences. But I don't want them to start regulating the Internet, which includes a lot more things than 911 service or spectrum.

In other words -- I guess I agree with Pai? But more importantly, I ask: The Internet seemed to work fine for the decade before the FCC reclassified it, so why would there be a reason to change something?

A group called the The Internet Association, whose members include Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, and other web companies, believe that Net Neutrality is now their right. This represents the most powerful and wealthy companies on earth.

The biggest problem I have with the Net Neutrality zealots is that they are fundamentally hypocritical. The core of this group are the Silicon Valley tech elite, a concentration of earnest libertarian and free-market Ayn Randians. They want us to believe that for some reason the same free market that let the Internet grow has now run its course and it's time to lock things down and hand control over to the FCC, because leaving it to the free market could somehow destroy our freedom.

The idiosyncratic and always rational techie and entrepreneur Tom Evslin, who started AT&T's first Internet service, one of the world's fastest-growing VOIP companies (ITXC), and helped develop core technology behind Microsoft's Exchange, points out this core hypocrisy in Net Neutrality: The same companies that fought for keeping the Internet deregulated now want it regulated. He's summed it up in a nice blog post, Don't Make the Internet Safe for Monopolies.

Here he says:

"At that time the proponents of Internet regulation were most regional monopoly telephone companies, who were regulated themselves (and very comfortable living in a regulated environment). The then small Internet industry (including me) argued that startups were not monopolies and could not afford the batteries of lobbyists and regulatory compliance lawyers needed to survive in a regulated world. 'Imagine,' we said, 'if each new Internet app had to be approved by some commission or another.' "

Yes, imagine that. Imagine that we put the FCC in charge of deciding how Internet apps should be treated. Which is exactly what we have done.

How exactly is that freedom?