The Guise of Neutrality

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Andrew Patts- Secretary of the Libertarian Party of Sacramento- July 13, 2017

A popular stance to take in the “Battle of the Internet” is to side with the FCC in support of what is known as Net Neutrality. It is such a widely popular stance that objectors are nearly demonized; who could possibly be against the fair and free exchange of ideas known as the internet (this is due to its moniker, more on that later)? For a long time I sided with the FCC; I signed petitions with John Oliver, spread awareness on Facebook, I helped my mom write a college essay in support of Net Neutrality. My loyalty to the cause was unquestionable.

My opinion of the matter began to change after reading and receiving yet another bombardment of the atrocities that would be committed by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) without the FCC’s regulation. It came to the point that I found myself becoming suspicious of the one-sided, dark and hyperbolic language that was common in defense of the FCC Regulation.

The argument in favor of FCC Regulation (I refuse to call it by its purposely innocuous title) is that without it, ISPs would destroy the freedom that the internet provides by manipulating and censoring what content is visible to consumers. The ISPs would force fledgling companies to pay a fee in order to have its content delivered to homes. Netflix would be forced to pay exorbitant fees to Comcast for the privilege of having premium bandwidth; fees that would be passed down to the consumer. Netflix would be able to outbid its competition for rights to the bandwidth. I argue that these are healthy indicators of a free market. Not only does the FCC’s Regulation strip the free market of these indicators, but it merely shifts oversight of these indicators from the people who find it to be in their best interest to watch these markers to people who have no vested interest in advancing technology, but rather a maintenance of the status quo.

Without the government, who would prevent Comcast from blocking Fox News or CNN from their customers? Who would prevent Comcast from charging ridiculous fees to one news organization but not the other? The free market. Comcast owns their service, it’s their property and they can do as they wish with it – if they want to restrict the internet to everyone but those who were willing to pay $1000 a month, let them! They’ll find a 99% reduction in subscription and their competition will love Comcast for their horrible decision to restrict the internet. In a free market and society, news of Comcast’s blatant censorship and restriction of the internet would be far-reaching; even consumers who don’t ascribe to the political views of the organization in question would be hesitant to continue their business with Comcast. How long could a company survive the economic pressure to remove roadblocks from their service and provide the best possible internet to the most amount of people (to make the most amount of money, those greedy capitalists!)?

The FCC, on the other hand, would have the authority to do everything Comcast did in the previous hypothetical situation. Fox News? Hate Speech. CNN? Fake news. The FCC, depending on whose administration oversees the agency (currently, President Trump and his administration), would have the power to force organizations to pay registration fees in order to buy the privilege to be on the internet in the first place. The constitutionality of such an action would be called into question. Months or years may pass while waiting for the decision of the Supreme Court, and, depending on whose administration, the Supreme Court may rule that the FCC’s actions are unconstitutional or they may fabricate an obscure but justifiable reason that the FCC is allowed to charge one organization but not another. In the former situation, you could switch providers. Good luck switching governments in the latter situation.

It is Comcast’s right to run their service as they please. Imagine the possibility of Comcast charging exorbitant fees to new companies who are trying to gain market entry. Suppose Comcast and Myspace have an agreement that Myspace would give Comcast x amount of money to prevent startup social media companies from posing a threat. In order to keep Myspace pleased and to make more money, they charge Facebook an enormous fee that will prevent them from solidifying any real market share. I say, good for them!

While Comcast is busy suppressing innovation, their competition is welcoming it with open arms by eliminating fees altogether. Facebook goes to ATT and flourishes. Instagram, Snapchat, Tinder, and countless other companies see that there is money to be made in rebuking Comcast and their fees so they switch to ATT as well. Comcast and Myspace would stagnate and die.

It is in Comcast’s best interest (financially) to provide the most open internet possible in order to attract innovators to their service. The notion that Comcast would willingly hamstring themselves by stifling startups, I came to realize, is nothing but a scare tactic – and that’s where I saw the narrative in favor of FCC Regulation beginning to lose its veneered facade.

With FCC Regulation, on the other hand, large corporations would have a method of buying votes in the government to preserve their status as primary market holders. This isn’t a new concept. We see lobbyists of every facet of society bidding for the votes of politicians – the FCC would be no exception. Myspace would be able to spend millions of dollars that startups don’t have in order to buy a few votes in the FCC to preserve their status as the dominant social media. In order to mask their corruption, they would obfuscate their intent by creating hoops and ladders that startups would be forced to overcome in order to have a (virtual) seat at the table. This would cost startups not only in programming, but in lawyers to make sure they comply with the purportedly “Free” internet of FCC Regulation. Instead of investing in their infrastructure to provide groundbreaking new features, startups would be forced to pay for their compliance with the law and adopt features that consumers are sick of, don’t want, or don’t need.

One fear tactic that proponents of FCC Regulation use is the idea that Comcast would begin charging people and companies alike for premium access to their bandwidth, or else Comcast would throttle internet speeds. This is a practice that every company does. Pay X amount for 10 mbps, or pay Y amount for 100 mbps. Proponents of FCC Regulation believe that this is extortionate. Do people have a right to demand paying less for more? Yes they do. But, it is also the right of Comcast to assess the viability of allowing an additional amount of stress to pummel their servers. It’s also the right of the consumer to switch to a service that charges less for more. FCC Regulation to treat every user as equal would have detrimental effect on everyone’s experience if it were enforced to its fullest sense of equality.

I argue, let Comcast practice extortion. Companies would leave Comcast’s service and flock to other services, and consumers would follow – leaving Comcast to suffer a slow but inevitable bankruptcy. Preventing this from happening and forcing ISPs to adopt certain regulations only allows inefficient but established ISPs to maintain their market share while hindering startups who would be expected to comply with inefficient standards that result in the consumer paying more for less. FCC Regulation would empower established corporations, diminishing consumer choice and stifling innovation.

Let us imagine that Comcast, in a lust for greed, decided to allow companies like Netflix and Hulu to wage an economic bandwidth war against each other in an effort to buy the most bandwidth and force the other to suffer limited speeds in order to foster a better rapport among their own customers. I don’t see this as a bad thing. This sort of cutthroat economic warfare culls the herd of devious ISPs. Netflix and Hulu would duke it out, buying bandwidth and reveling in the company’s inability to service their customers. But truly, who is hurt the most? The ISP. When Hulu loses to Netflix and ultimately discontinues service with Comcast, others who love Hulu’s service would leave Comcast as well. This scenario would play out similarly to the one outlined earlier; Comcast’s decision to play favorites with certain companies would utterly backfire when the established order becomes old, outdated, and unfashionable. Comcast would suffer as a result of their greed. This is how the free market punishes the greedy.

FCC Regulation, on the other hand, would expose the internet to the world of politics and allow favorites to be played by the politicians. Netflix could hire lobbyists to ensure that regulations are written to ensure their dominance and force their competition to overcome jungles of red tape for the simple act of gaining market entry. If Comcast were to do this and Hulu discontinued service, Comcast would be held accountable and be punished by the free market. In the case of FCC Regulation, Comcast would be absolved from their involvement and the internet would be beholden to the interest of the 1%, lobbyists, and large corporations like Comcast.

The solution to this problem (if a problem existed in the first place) is to allow the free market to reward the greed that fosters innovation, entrepreneurship, and the uninhibited freedom of ideas. The free market does not reward those whose greed results in the stifling of advancement. FCC Regulation rewards the inverse of the free market. Rather than rewarding innovation, the government rewards the established corporations. Rather than rewarding entrepreneurship, the government creates barriers of entry to protect their own greedy interests. Rather than unleashing freedom, the government would have us apply for permits to practice our free speech over the internet.

Some may call me paranoid when I mention the possibility of government tyranny; they may tell me to put on my tin foil hat when I say that the FCC would have Apple surrender their encryption to the FBI. I know there has never been a single documented case in the entire history of the internet, anywhere in the world, of a government seizing control of the internet and confining its use to state-sanctioned activities, but I embrace my paranoia, nonetheless.

P.S. I find the name choice nefarious in and of itself. “Net Neutrality,” who could possibly want a restricted internet? The name shuts down meaningful conversation and obfuscates the true objective of the law – government control. I liken it to naming a gun ban the “Safe Children Act.” Who wants children in danger? It’s a disgusting manipulation of emotion that should be addressed. “The PATRIOT Act” is a moniker that also appeals to emotion rather than logic; a similar bill named “The Orwellian Expansion of Governmental Powers of Surveillance” would have a snowflake’s chance in hell to be passed.

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