A storm is brewing in Washington, D.C. over government regulations of the Internet that its supporters call “net neutrality.” In short, net neutrality laws would force broadband providers to treat all content – whether it is ESPN.com, iTunes, Drudge Report, Google or porn – equally. Unfortunately, Washington is a place where populist rhetoric like “net neutrality” can obscure the very substantive, very technical issues behind public policy.
Net neutrality regulations evoke intense emotion on both sides, but its supporters and opponents agree on one thing: that it constitutes unprecedented regulation over the Internet. But supporters of more government regulations of the Internet fail to see that once the camel’s nose is under the tent, it is hard to keep the rest of it out.
Today, the Internet exists as it is because it is free of government intrusion. All that it is, all that it offers, and all that it can be, is the result of very limited, if not the outright absence of, government regulation. Today’s Internet is the result of significant competition, innovation, and investment. Yet politicians in Washington are fearful that we as consumers will be unable to decide for ourselves which service or content best suits us.
In other words, big Internet companies like Google and Amazon.com are lobbying government to regulate the Internet in such a manner that will stifle competition by making the natural evolution of the physical architecture of the Internet illegal. Instead, these government regulations would ensure that the Internet operates in the same way for the rest of its existence, regardless of whether engineers and scientists find another approach that works better for consumers. While that may be good news for Google, it would be bad news for consumers.
Specifically, net neutrality regulations would prohibit broadband companies like Time Warner’s Road Runner service or AT&T’s DSL from charging high-traffic, high-bandwidth websites more than low- or medium- traffic websites. In effect these regulations would force small websites and blogs to pay as much as huge bandwidth hogs like Google and Amazon.com. No wonder these companies have spent millions of dollars lobbying on behalf of network neutrality subsidies. If high-traffic websites don’t pay for the bandwidth they use, small websites and Internet customers will ultimately pay for the price of innovation and upgrades.
That’s precisely how the telephone industry operates. If the Internet were to be regulated in the same way that government regulates phone service, customers would pay fees, surcharges, and taxes just to log on to an Internet that provides sub par services. It wasn’t until new technologies – like internet telephony or cellular phones – were introduced that phone charges began to drop because of the direct competition.
But the Internet – in the absence of government intrusion – is an entirely different place, where people are free to exchange ideas and commerce is allowed to move at nearly the speed of light. You are free to pay or not pay, and business is free to charge or not charge, for anything you may choose to view. And it is precisely the ever-present market forces that have kept prices down and access up. Currently, nothing prevents AOL or Time Warner, or AT&T, or Juno, or Comcast from charging consumers to view particular content on the Internet. Companies are currently free as it stands to pursue the parade of horribles net neutrality supporters envision. But because we have left the Internet open to competition, these irrational fears never materialized because companies don’t dare to risk losing customers.
Today, millions of Americans have access to high-speed Internet that didn’t exist just a few years back, and millions more join the high-speed world every year. We can now shop, get phone calls, and watch television over the Internet.
But somebody is going to have to pay for the continued expansion and availability of this technology, and the development of even better innovations. The net neutrality regulations revolve around the question of who is going to pay for these new networks: big Internet corporations or you?
Cameron Sholty is the Wisconsin State Director for FreedomWorks, a national organization dedicated to lower taxes, less government, and more individual freedom.