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"Net Neutrality" is Not Freedom or Neutral

October 20, 2009 - 6:38pm
Nick Coons by Nick Coons


On Thursday, the FCC will vote on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Net Neutrality. "Net neutrality", which I like to put in quotes because it's one of those government oxymorons, is a solution seeking a problem that does not exist.

The FCC has a new website where they're taking comments about "net neutrality", called OpenInternet.gov.

"Net neutrality" was proposed as a way of making sure the internet remained, well, neutral. The scare was that large ISPs like Comcast, AT&T, Cox, etc., would not only charge end users for internet access, but would also charge websites for access to their customers. In other words, AT&T might tell Google that Google had to pay AT&T for access to AT&T's customers. If Google paid, AT&T's customers would enjoy the use of Google as they currently do. If Google didn't pay, then any AT&T customer would either not have access to Google, or have inferior (slower, intermittent) access. Google would therefore pay AT&T for fear of losing those customers to a competitor, like Yahoo. In doing so, Google would take on extra expenses that would either require them to charge for their services, or reduce the availability of them.

Many proponents of "net neutrality" admit that this wouldn't normally be a problem, as a user of an unscrupulous ISP (like AT&T in our fictitious example above) could simply change to another ISP. The problem enters when we realize that most high speed internet providers are monopolies in their area. Unless you're in a major metropolitan area, you don't normally have your choice of high speed internet providers. And this is where the analysis stops.

But it shouldn't. Does anyone question why ISPs have this sort of monopoly? Does anyone consider that large internet infrastructures might have government-granted monopolies, that they might have deals with municipalities that allow them to lay cable under the city streets but not their competitors, and that these government deals are leading to the economic environment that might allow ISPs to engage in such behavior? Why can't I get Comcast high-speed service here in the Phoenix metro area? Surely there are plenty of potential customers for them to want to build an infrastructure here if they were allowed.

However, even given the government-granted monopoly status, it's been seven years since this concept was introduced. Big, bad, evil ISP mega-corporations have had seven years to engage in these sorts of practices if they thought they would benefit, but it hasn't happened. "Net neutrality" attempts to fix a problem that doesn't even exist, and in all likelihood will never exist. And it's a poor fix to boot.

First, it gives regulatory control of the internet to the government. It's yet another step to saying, "Yes, I think the government should have a say in how the internet works." Second, it states that all traffic on the internet must be treated equally. But not all traffic is equal. Some traffic, like VoIP packets, need priority over other traffic, like torrents. This would be like forcing a doctor to give someone with the sniffles the same priority as someone with a bullet wound to the head. ISPs already know how to handle these packets efficiently so that they get maximum utilization from their networks. If "net neutrality" passes, the first thing we can expect is for consumer internet access prices to rise as ISPs increase their infrastructure to handle the current level of traffic under the new rules.

Related Content:

The Invisible Hand of the Market vs. the Middle Finger of the State - Nick Coons

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