Planet Libertaria

Posts Tagged ‘net neutrality

Net Neutrality is “The Kill Switch”

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You’ll excuse me, but I find it very difficult to get excited whenever there’s unrest in the Middle East, because, hell, when isn’t there?  Conceptually, I get that this latest stuff is a big deal; among other things, Egypt’s dictator is gone, and Qaddafi (pick one of the 15 ways they’re spelling his name all of a sudden) bugged out of Libya, claiming the entire uprising was because teenagers were drinking Nescafe spiked with hallucinogens, and Osama Bin Laden, of all people, definitely had something to do with it.  U.S. foreign policy (or lack thereof) is on display, and gas prices are through the roof because we continue to insist on being dependent on the world’s most unstable region for our energy needs.  Any of these topics would be a great opportunity for a libertarian to repeat the following mantra: We need to stay the hell out of it, and take care of our own damn country.

But I will say that one especially interesting news item (particularly in the case of Egypt) is how the Internet helped to coordinate the popular upheaval.  What I haven’t seen is the bridge between that story and the Net neutrality argument.

Well, that’s not completely true.  I’ve seen several articles on why the Egyptian uprising (and presumably the Middle East uprisings collectively) is actually a case for Net neutrality.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  First of all, what is Net neutrality?  It sounds nice and harmless; who could be against neutrality?  Think Switzerland. Taupe!  Neutrality as a concept seems pretty unobjectionable, but it’s also a nice, innocent-sounding buzzword hijacked for political purposes – sort of like “freedom.”  You see in this case, “neutrality” means “taking control.”

The best quasi-definition of Net neutrality that I’ve run across goes like this:

Network neutrality is the principle that Internet users should be able to access any web content they choose and use any applications they choose, without restrictions or limitations imposed by their Internet service provider.  For example, if you are shopping for a new appliance online you should be able to shop on any and all websites, not just the ones with whom your provider has a preferred business relationship.

Wow, that sounds terrific.  In fact, when it comes to Net neutrality as something Congress is considering implementing as actual law, Net neutrality supposedly:

[…]  advocates no restrictions by Internet service providers and governments on content, sites, platforms, the kinds of equipment that may be attached, and the modes of communication.

So… what’s the problem?  If your Internet service provider – like Verizon or Comcast – wants to get into some shady deal with, say, General Motors to make their page load fast and Ford’s load really, really slow, shouldn’t that be illegal? Shouldn’t consumers experience a “free and open” Internet where every page gets a fair and even shake?  I mean, good Lord, didn’t somebody just say that this would also mean that government can’t regulate the Internet?

That last point in particular is ridiculous; in terms of federal law, Net neutrality would be enforced by – surprise! – Captain Censorship, also known as the Federal Communications Commission.  But don’t get too caught up in that little detail; I mean, just because a federal commission that reports to Congress and is appointed by the President is enforcing legislation enacted by the House and Senate doesn’t mean that government is regulating the Internet.  No, sir!  Neutrality!

And just why exactly every web page should have identical treatment is beyond me, and apparently this guy, too:

Senator Al Franken, at the Netroots Nation conference in late July, talked about a dystopian future without Net neutrality: “How long do you think it will take before the Fox News website loads five times faster than Daily Kos?” Hopefully, this will happen right away. Fox News should load 20 times faster than Daily Kos, because far more people read it. It’s better for society that millions of people get someplace a little faster while the relatively few Daily Kos readers wait a few seconds. This is why not all roads are the same width.

But the justification behind Net neutrality as a law is the idea that the Internet consumer is entitled to a certain Internet experience.  To quote the FCC directly (with my emphasis added):

• To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected
nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of
their choice.

Well, why?  Why am I entitled to anything?  If I’m logging on to the Internet through a subscription via access to the infrastructure provided by Verizon (and I am), why am I entitled to anything they aren’t selling me?  If Verizon doesn’t want me accessing certain sites or loading at the same speed as CNN, don’t they have a right to restrict or “throttle” that content?  It’s their service, right?

And it’s probably in Verizon’s interest to avoid restricting access anyway, which is why the ever-so-feared world where one ISP has a contract with Bing to block Google isn’t a world we live in.  Restricting or inhibiting access to content on the Internet is suicide, and ISP corporations know it.  The United Kingdom has managed to figure that out:

The U.K. minister in charge of communications policy said Wednesday that there isn’t a need for so-called Net neutrality regulation, citing healthy competition among Internet service providers as the key to preventing unfair practices on the Web. […]

“A lightly regulated Internet is good for business, good for the economy, and good for people,” Vaizey said in a speech. “Competition in the market, combined with transparency, the ability to switch, and an overall adherence to the sort of principles I have outlined, should render such intervention unnecessary.”

Now in practically the same breath, he points out that here in the good old United States the lack of providers from region to region (in other words, the only game in town for you might be AT&T’s Internet service) means that in his opinion the Net neutrality argument has some warrant on our side of the pond.  So does that mean we’re better off encouraging competition, or having government regulate the Internet?  As someone who firmly believes competition yields price and service customization, I certainly think it’s a no-brainer.

Let’s go back to the Middle East: as you may have heard, once Egyptian authorities got wind of the role social networking was playing in the uprising, Internet traffic went something like this:

Am I supposed to believe the Egyptian FCC (if there was one) would have kept that from happening?  Spare me.  If anything, Net neutrality would have been a serious impediment to the revolution.  Using the Middle East to support the enforcement of Net neutrality is completely pointless.

What’s the point of Net neutrality?  For starters, it’s a not-so-great solution to a problem that really doesn’t seem to exist.  Why is anyone bothering with it at all?  Well, any time government gets into something it establishes a precedent for future governmental control.  That’s reality.  What possible benefit could government receive from wading into the Internet under the guise of maintaining freedom (as a side note, I’ll never understand why government regulation is needed for free anything, including free trade)?  To select one possible – I’d argue probable – reason, I’d like to direct your attention back to the Internet “kill switch” debate.

The very short version of the “kill switch” debate is that some people think that the government (I’m still not sure exactly who; that’s conveniently left out of the discussion) should have the power to shut off the Internet in the event of a significant cyber security threat.  Without delving into how stupid I think that is, suffice to say there are a lot of folks out there who think that’s a horrible idea and a concentration of power that no person or governmental body should have.  But once you get the FCC involved in regulating Internet traffic, it’s a very short walk to government being able to halt Internet traffic.

I don’t mean to suggest that Net neutrality is a giant conspiracy; I’m sure most proponents believe it’s the best thing that could ever happen to the Internet.  What I don’t believe is that it’s intelligent in the first place, nor do I think government interest in Net neutrality is benevolently benign.