The Battle For Better Broadband

By Martin Bosworth

A few days ago in my post celebrating the victories of the Save The Internet coalition, a certain fly in the ointment challenged me on a few points in a way that I felt deserved its own post, rather than a cramped comment in a thread. Here’s what he had to say. My responses below the jump.

Does Net Neutrality mean government regulation of the Internet? Yes and no. The difference is in context. Whereas I would strongly oppose any sort of law that determined what kind of content you post on your site as an aggressive form of regulation, I would support NN as a defensive form or regulation. It is one thing to actively police the ‘Net demanding that you censor what you say–that will always garner a staunch opposition from me. It’s another to say that you cannot favor one form of traffic, and therefore content, over another. NN is actually more favorable to speech in this regard, because it enables the user to decide what content they prefer after trying everything out. Choice–what a concept! Alex Curtis (an avowed conservative libertarian, by the way) sums up the regulation issue in this Public Knowledge post from ’06.

Is government regulation of the Net necessary? In this case, I would say “Yes.” Look, it’s a reality that U.S. broadband development and penetration is abysmal. Major telecoms like AT&T and Verizon would rather use the Universal Service Fund–which was ostensibly designed to spur investment in rural broadband–as a slush fund to subsidize their cost overruns and whatever big project they have going. (In fact, you may recall that both telecoms petitioned for regulatory relief from paying the USF–and then promptly charged customers a brand-new fee with no explanation that went right into their pockets, until a consumer outcry forced them to give it up.)

Bruce Kushnick has documented in scabrous detail the many instances of big telecoms going to the government with their hand out to ensure they maintain their duopoly status, while crying for freedom from regulation any time their goals are not met. Not that cable companies are much better–you can’t call it realistic competition when you have one telecom provider and one cable provider responsible for ALL of the Internet connectivity in a given region.

The Internet was built with your tax dollars–it’s more than a simple exchange of goods for cash. It is an ongoing, ever-growing, complex system that requires attention and support from both the public AND private sectors.

Won’t market forces be able to provide the incentive? No. As I said above, there is too little real competition available to give consumers real choices. You would think that people like (now-retiring) AT&T chair Ed Whitacre and Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg would have the foresight to realize that spurring rural broadband development would mean thousands of new subscribers, new commerce, new advertising, and more profits in the long-term. But that’s just it–long-term. When you’re under constant pressure to please shareholders every single quarter with new growth and profits, it’s much easier to cherry-pick rich, single-home neighborhoods for high-priced, high-speed service and leave the low-income customers lagging behind at 384kbps (if they’re lucky).

Shouldn’t content providers pay for hosting their services on networks? Yes, and they do. Do you really think Google gets a free ride on AT&T’s pipes, as Whitacre famously put it? Of course not. These companies pay huge money to get their services out to Web users–and that’s what galls guys like Whitacre and Seidenberg. People don’t get on the Web because they like AT&T and Verizon. Those are just the vehicles used for the journey. The destination is content–Google, Yahoo, blogs, Wikipedia, you name it. It’s an issue of prestige–Google is the #1 site in the world because of what it provides and how it does it. No one remembers the taxi they took to get to the sightseeing, which is what drives Whitacre mad. So he (and his successor) want to gouge the content providers with extra fees in hopes of earning new revenue or eating away at their business model, while trying to drive traffic to their less-useful, less-interesting, and less-capable content offerings.

And finally… it bears mentioning that if the two biggest telecom companies in America think nothing of collecting your calling data and giving it to the government without your knowledge or consent, can you really trust them to develop a progressive and fair broadband policy?

Regulation, by itself, is a tool like anything else. It’s how it’s used and administered that counts. I realize that trying to convince an avowed Objectivist of the need for proactive regulation of the markets is akin to telling Mahmoud Ahmadenijad that Jews did, in fact, die in the Holocaust, but to simply say that something equals “government regulation” as the sum total of your argument is just sloppy. It’s operating from the Thomas Friedman standard of simply making a point and not trying to substantiate it.

5 replies »

  1. First, it’s not correct that the internet was “built with your tax dollars.” The internet started as government venture, but the private sector has made it what it is today.

    I started talking about the issue of government regulation because you claimed that net neutrality was not government regulation. Or, at least, you said that it wasn’t “active” regulation.

    My problem with net neutrality is that it ignores the property rights of internet service providers. They built the networks that we use the access the internet with their own resources (please just hear me out before you jump on that). It was their money that laid the lines down, it is their money that keeps their networks going. What’s made out as a policy decision “we” should make about the “internet” is really a takeover of someone else’s property. What used to be private property will now be controlled, to some extent, by the government. I think that is unjust.

    I believe that every individual has the fundamental right to his or her own life, including the right to own what he or she earns. Property rights are essential to living your life, and the role of government should be to protect your rights. In all of the arguments I’ve heard from you or other net neutrality advocates about how net neutrality will make the internet better, I haven’t heard one person address issues such as what the individual’s rights are, what the role of government should be in our lives, or how we should treat private property. These issues are essential to the debate. If you believe that these companies don’t have a right to control their lines, shouldn’t you start with that? Say, “These companies aren’t satisfying our desire for cheap, fast internet, so we need to take over their property,” or “The role of government is to make our lives easier, and in this case its power should be used to control ISPs,” or something that better explains the fundamental reasons why people should be forced to act in the way you want on this issue. Because when you bring the government into the equation, it’s not a question of what one *should* do, it’s a question of what one *must* do.

    I don’t care about this particular issue so much as I care about the broader issue of individual rights. I don’t think there is any justification for one man to force another man to act against his own will (so long as his will doesn’t violate another man’s rights). And what is a company if it is not an association of men and women, each with the same rights as if they were alone? You can’t take away a company’s rights without violating individual rights. I do not believe in “the ends justify the means” argument when the “means” is the violation of individual rights, even if the “ends” is internet access faster than 384kbps.

    Now to go back to my “they build the networks that we use to access the internet with their own resources” comment, I understand that some telecoms use government power to make money. Their actions are wrong and they make it harder for me to sit here and defend their rights when they’re guilty of the stunts that net neutrality advocates are trying to pull. However, the solution to this is not to continue to use the government to violate individual rights in order to resolve perceived “inequities.” And be honest: Net neutrality isn’t going to break the link between government and big business, it won’t increase broadband access, it won’t make the internet faster, or resolve any of the other issues you have with big telecom companies.

  2. You know, I worked for a telecom for a few years. Then, as a consultant I had two or three more telecoms as clients. As well as a large company that build telecom infrastructure. In my doc program I spent some time studying telco policy and have published and lectured on the subject.

    So while I don’t consider myself the world’s king-hell #1 expert on the subject, it’s not unfair to suggest that my view is an informed one – informed from the perspective of theoretical study and hands-on application.

    It’s frustrating trying to have a conversation with somebody who has neither real-world nor scholarly knowledge of the subject, and yet who pretends to lecture from the perspective of ideological wisdom.

    We all have theories and ideologies that we use to make sense of and shape our lives. Sometimes these frames are productive, and other times they lead us into all kinds of trouble. However, we all face times when our theories come into conflict with the facts before us. When this happens, there are two options.

    Smart people evolve their theories so that they assimilate the new data and thus are better able to explain the next situation they come upon. This fosters growth, maturity, and in time, wisdom. Other people either reject the new data or worse, try and hammer the square peg of fact into the round hole of prefabricated theory.

    Nothing good ever comes of this. There is no learning, no growth. Merely the stagnation that attends dogmatism. You can’t debate with it because it doesn’t listen and it doesn’t credit anything that doesn’t automatically agree with it. You can’t learn from it because usually you’ve read that book, too, and have already extracted what there is to learn and built it into your own fluid, evolving set of sense-making tools. And you absolutely can’t teach it because it fancies itself omniscient.

    All you can do is waste time on it.

  3. Darren,

    I won’t presume to speak for Sam, but I was going to make a similar point in a much blunter fashion. To wit:

    It’s impossible for us to come to any kind of consensus on this issue because you are funneling the entirety of the spectrum through your prism of stark Objectivism–a prism I do not see through or agree with. There is more to life than desires for “rights” and “property,” and any resource as vast as the Internet is going to have ownership claims on all fronts. Public, private, individual, and communal.

    Or more simply put: Individual rights are well and dandy, but individual responsibilities to oneself and the world around you come with every right, be it gun ownership or control of the Internet. We do not live in a vacuum.

    You’re a smart guy with obvious intellectual prowess and ability to discuss points in a cogent fashion, but your philosophy and mine are so utterly different that we might as well be speaking to each other in different languages. Hopefully as you continue reading here, our debates (of which I am sure there will be more) will broaden your perspective somewhat.

    Otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone’s time, as Sam said.