5/06 Network Neutrality: What’s Being Missed

What The Misguided Have Missed Regarding Network Neutrality
Craig Fields

The concept of Network Neutrality has unfortunately been misunderstood by many conservatives, libertarians, and other champions of the free market. That’s too bad, because the free market essence of the Internet is exactly what would be lost without Network Neutrality.

The large telecoms, some politicians and a number of conservative pundits have characterized the push for Network Neutrality as a left-wing attempt to stifle innovation and put government bureaucrats in control of the Internet. Well, it’s not. Through my work with Gun Owners of America, I am demonstratively a lot further to the right than they are.

It is true that the largest member of the coalition looking to regain Network Neutrality is MoveOn.org — and they are usually my political enemies. But Gun Owners and groups like Brent Bozell’s Parents Television Council have done what many on the right don’t seem to have: our homework.

One of the most telling points is that what the coalition is trying to get codified is what we have had all along as the Internet was developed. In all of those years, Network Neutrality was policy… until August of 2005, when the FCC changed the rules. How can this policy stifle innovation and competition when the Internet has been a roaring success in those areas for decades?

The real problem is that we are under a distorted market from the get-go. Government is setting the rules. The result has been a government-supported oligopoly. We are lucky that those controlling physical access to the Internet have been forced to give every purchaser of bandwidth equal access — it doesn’t matter whether Gun Owners or the Brady Center is purchasing a T-1: all T-1 purchasers pay the same for the same level of service. And moreover, the phone company has to tough it if they don’t like what is being done with that bandwidth (such as this column).

This goes all the way back to Ma Bell — after all, the physical infrastructure of the Internet is the nation’s phone lines. Conservatives and libertarians should think of “network neutrality” as a buzzword for “common carrier,” because that is its result: when neutrality is in place, the telecoms are “common carriers” of the information that flows over the Internet. Like UPS trucks on our nation’s highways, they use the infrastructure to deliver services, but can’t arbitrarily deny customers access to those services, nor control what anyone else does on the “road.”

It’s a situation that economists all the way back to Adam Smith have wrestled with: when your infrastructure is so solidly in place that no one can build a competing system, how do you make certain that competition flourishes in its use? A large part of the solution is the concept of common carriers, which are free to make money but exercise no direct control over the infrastructure itself.

And just as I-95 is the only Interstate we have between Richmond and the Beltway, no one is going to build a competing physical Internet.

But people are going to build new Burger Kings along the highways. Suppose, however, that AT&T owned I-95. And that they inked an exclusive deal with Wendy’s. Or bowed to pressure from food Nazis and said no burgers at all from Florida to Maine.

What we think of as the free market nature of the Internet is only possible because the oligopoly has been forced to keep its hands off of what actually gets done with the infrastructure they control.

In a truly free market, Network Neutrality would not be necessary, as good old American competition would drive the very best service up the ladder of success. But as long as government is setting the rules for a handful of companies, the rules have to include statutory Network Neutrality to ensure those companies can’t unilaterally shut down what the innovators are doing. If they had any choice, telephone companies would not have allowed Instant Messaging or Voice over Internet — those things directly compete with their largest moneymaking service!

But it can be worse than that. Large telecoms have internal anti-gun policies. If they were allowed to, what’s to stop them from slowing or blocking content they disagree with? Something similar recently happened, when AOL was caught blocking e-mails urging people to sign a petition against one of its policies.

The disruptions to the free and open Internet don’t have to be political in nature, and most won’t be. Most will simply crush anyone desiring to compete by stopping them at the gate — since the telecoms will be the gatekeepers. For instance, suppose you’ve developed the absolutely killer streaming video firmware. But Verizon has its money sunk into its own, inferior product. With Network Neutrality in place, they can’t deny you the chance to buy the bandwidth you need to prove your product superior. Without a defined level playing field, however, Verizon could alter the very skeleton of the Internet to where you wouldn’t have a chance.

Since there is officially no Network Neutrality at the moment, some misinformed folks have said that proponents can’t point to any instance of underhanded tactics. What they may not know is that we’re under a 1-year moratorium before the August 2005 new definitions from the FCC making such a thing possible go into effect. Plus, Congress is just starting to work on a MAJOR restructuring of laws governing cable and Internet franchises. Those in the oligopoly knew this fight was coming; of course they’re going to wait until the keys to the gates are truly in their hands before opening and closing them arbitrarily.

Another wrong argument made by the misguided is that the leftists are trying to institute price controls, forcing companies to charge the same for high bandwidth video as for quick-flying e-mail. Or as one writer put it, charge the same for a golf ball and a marble being sent through garden hoses. Nope. That bigger, more expensive hose required to deliver the golf ball? Network Neutrality merely means that all who buy that particular hose get the same hose at the same price and can’t be denied the chance to lawfully use it.

It’s a funny way to have to think of it, true, but as long as Congress is making the rules for a handful of major companies in providing the infrastructure, it has to make certain those companies give equal access to all comers. That’s the way it has been for the very lifetime of the free and open Internet we’re all interested in maintaining.

Craig Fields is Director of Internet Operations for Gun Owners of America.