There has never been a better example of what economist F. A. Hayek termed “spontaneous order,” complex systems that arise purely through the actions of self-interested individuals, than the wild and wooly growth of the internet over the past few decades. Thanks to the efforts of an enormous number of content providers, innovators, entrepreneurs and investors, the internet sprang from obscurity into one of the most revolutionary tools of wealth creation and information distribution the world has ever seen.
Of course, no such remarkable force can go unnoticed by federal regulators for long. Like pies cooling on a windowsill, the scent of individuals prospering without help from the government quickly drew the attention of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), eager to get its regulatory hooks into the world’s largest unfettered marketplace of ideas.
In 2010, the FCC waded into the debate with controversial regulations known as net neutrality, specifying the terms on which Internet Service Providers (ISPs) could provide access to consumers. The arguments have been heated on both sides of the debate, but a ruling in January by a federal appeals court appears to have preserved an unregulated internet for the time being by striking down the agency’s net neutrality rules as being outside of the FCC’s purview.
Many in the media were quick to decry the ruling, claiming that it opens the door to ISPs restricting content or attempting to disproportionately drive traffic to websites with which they are affiliated. What this hysteria fails to take into account is that the internet has remained perfectly open and free for many years without the implementation of net neutrality, and there is no reason to expect that to change now.
Several prominent Senate Democrats have attempted to cloud the issue with misleading language. Kay Hagan (D-NC) has said, “I support net neutrality values central to our American democracy – free speech and equal opportunity.” In fact, net neutrality does exactly the opposite. This was the same twisted logic used to endorse the Orwellian “Fairness Doctrine,” where free speech was supposedly protected by the government telling broadcasters what they could and could not say. When Republicans tried to enact legislation to end the FCC’s authority to enforce net neutrality, Hagan, along with Mark Begich (D-AK), Mark Pryor (D-AR), and Mark Udall (D-CO) voted to kill the bill.
Now, Netflix is complaining that they are being charged higher prices as a result of the lapsing of net neutrality. As much as I enjoy Netflix’s services and appreciate it as a company, it’s hard to sympathize with them in this case. High traffic sites take up the most amount of bandwidth, and thus cost ISPs the most to provide. Up to now, they have been getting a free ride as costs are spread evenly among other, less popular sites. In effect, the big content providers have been receiving subsidies at the expense of their smaller competitors. This hardly seems like the “free and open” internet proponents of net neutrality claim to want.
The FCC’s arguments for why it needs the authority to regulate the internet are framed as a solution to a problem that has never been observed. In reality, the case for net neutrality is nothing more than an excuse for the FCC to perpetuate itself in the face of obsolescence in traditional radio and television transmission, and the dwindling market for landline telephony.
A glance at other countries around the world reveals the dangers of allowing government to control the flow of information. Whenever governments are granted authority over the internet, the end result is censorship and manipulation. In China, internet regulation began in 1997 as a simple restriction on users from using the internet for nefarious or illegal purposes, but these regulations rapidly evolved into what is now known as “The Great Firewall of China,” a comprehensive system of content control that engages in wholesale censorship.
While the U.S. is still a long way from such abuses of power, recent revelations about the NSA monitoring the communications of law-abiding citizens should give Americans every reason to be skeptical of extending government control over electronic communications.
While the court’s ruling on net neutrality is certainly a victory for a free internet, the prognosis is not entirely rosy. The decision also stated that improving broadband deployment does in fact fall under the authority of the FCC, leaving the door open for any number of internet regulations in the future.
Advocates for internet freedom must remain constantly vigilant against the government’s attempts to exert control over the most creative and vibrant segment of the American economy. A free and unregulated internet benefits us all and, if kept out of the hands of the FCC, will continue to do so for many years to come.