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.