When the FCC began to seriously consider imposing Net Neutrality standards on internet service providers, I had many concerns. I wrote an article at the time called “Rebutting the President on Net Neutrality,” in which I listed my disagreements with a policy that, on the surface, sounds reasonable to many. One of the more controversial points I raised was in response to the “No Blocking” principle, which forbids ISPs from picking and choosing which content they provide access to. I wrote:
Requiring an ISP to provide equal access to all web content is akin to forcing a restaurant to serve every type of food. Product differentiation is one of the main ways in which companies compete. Just as cable companies offer a variety of packages for people who like sports, or movies, or news – why shouldn’t ISPs be allowed to tailor their service, and their prices, to individual needs?
When I discussed this point with others, even some self-professed libertarians, I received a surprising amount of pushback. Why would any honest ISP want to restrict content? How could that possibly benefit consumers? In any case, such a practice will never happen, because there’s no demand for it. These were the types of complaints I heard whenever the issue of Net Neutrality came up in a conversation or radio interview.
Now, a little over a year later, we are starting to see the exact problem I worried about in a real, non-hypothetical setting. Two companies, Jnet and True Vine Online are soon likely to be harmed by the FCC’s Net Neutrality regulations. The reason is that these companies exist to cater to a Christian audience who want to access the internet without having to worry about objectionable content – such as pornography and and LOLcats. Okay, maybe not LOLcats, but the point is that these ISPs block that type of content, because it’s what their customers want.
However, under the FCC’s anti-blocking rules, this business model is illegal. They claim that if you’re going to provide access to some of the internet, you have to provide access to all of it. The obvious question is, why can’t we let consumers choose the type of service they want to pay for? Why should Jnet customers be forced to pay higher prices for content they never want to see? Effectively, these people are having to subsidize content they disapprove of, because the government won’t let them opt out.
The great thing about markets is that there doesn’t have to be one solution for everyone. Each person can select the service that best caters to his needs, and neglect that ones that don’t. The services that please consumers will make money and the ones that fail to please them will go out of business, but there is room for a lot of different models to coexist alongside one another.
When government gets involved, however, we lose these options, as one top down solution is dictated to all of us, ignoring the differences in our individual preferences and resources. Net Neutrality is already harming consumer choice, as its critics predicted it would, and it’s likely to get worse before it gets better, as the FCC continues to flex the muscles granted to it under its new authority. This is one of the rare cases where I really hate to say "I told you so."