What is “net neutrality?”
To borrow Senator Ted Stevens’s infamous analogy of the Internet to a series of tubes, imagine a network of pipes connected by switching stations. The width of a pipe (bandwidth) determines the volume of messages (packets) than can be sent through it. Packets arriving at a switching station wait in a queue until they can be forwarded to their destination. The pipe’s diameter and the volume of traffic determines the total time (latency) that messages take to reach their destination.
Advocates of “net neutrality” argue against the right of the owners of the pipes (Internet Service Providers) to discriminate between different messages or to charge recipients of messages. So for example, an ISP would not be able to favor telephone calls sent over the net over movie downloads, or charge Google extra for the traffic sent their way, or to block a business if it competes with their own services, or to block malicious or illegal websites. Implementation of such regulations would require government surveillance of Internet traffic and FCC approval of new technologies and services which might violate “neutrality.”
Regulation stifles innovation
The limitations of the original Internet protocols became apparent as it transitioned from a monopoly network designed for government use to a competitive and decentralized marketplace. One limitation is the lack of ability to prioritize certain kinds of traffic. Different kinds of communications have different bandwidth requirements. Watching movies over the web is bandwidth-intensive, but not time-critical. Teleconferences are both bandwidth intensive and time critical. Some applications like remote surgery and other time-critical services are simply impossible over the public Internet with current technology.
Advances in technology are beginning to allow traffic to be analyzed in the process of transmission, so certain traffic, such as real-time video can be prioritized, while other traffic such as file sharing or spam can be given a lower priority or dropped. Along with dramatic increases in speed and performance, technological innovation is making entirely new kinds of services possible.
Net neutrality advocates want the government to regulate how ISP’s may and may not route traffic. Pressure groups such as consumer activist groups, major websites, small ISPs, and Internet backbone providers are fighting for controls that favor them. Once the precedent of regulation is established, competition will shift to passing the most favorable legislation rather than providing the best technology and service.
Regulations breed more regulations
While communications technology has experienced exponential growth, heavily regulated and monopolized consumer phone and cable providers have been slower to improve services. Consumers fed up with expensive cable and DSL services are demanding more government controls over the pricing and behavior of their ISP’s. They argue that regulations are necessary because telecommunications companies receive monopoly privileges and other benefits from the government. But the lesson they should learn is the opposite – regulations create the need for more regulations. The solution is to abolish coercive monopolies for cable and phone service providers and allow free and open competition.
The Internet is possible because many private networks find it in their mutual self-interest to cooperate and share traffic loads. When inequalities arise, networks compensate each other for the extra load. “Neutrality” regulations force companies to act against their self-interest, inevitably leading them to complain to Congress to impose ever more detailed controls to maintain “fairness.”
The Internet is private property
The Internet is not public property. Telecommunications companies have spent billions of dollars on network infrastructure all over the world. They did so in the hope of selling communications services to customers willing to pay for them. The government has no right to effectively nationalize ISP’s by telling them how run their networks.
Proponents of a mixed economy like to invent hypothetical scenarios of ways companies could abuse customers. It is true that a free society gives people the freedom to be stupid, wrong, and malicious. The great thing about capitalism is that it also gives people the freedom for the most consumer-friendly business to win. A regulated Internet takes away that freedom and turn it over to politicians and lobbyists. History shows that most attempts to improve outcomes by regulating markets worsen the very problems they were intended to solve. That is how the USA ended up with the current overpriced, monopolistic oligopoly providers. Why do “net neutrality” advocates ridicule politicians for comparing the Internet to a “series of tubes,” and then trust them to regulate it?
Real solutions to a better Internet
- End local Internet monopolies which prevent small ISPs from being successful
- Remove local and federal (FCC) regulations which prevent all but the most powerful corporations from providing telecom services
- Allow ISPs to innovate in by forcing cities to open up their infrastructure without the threat that their business model will be nationalized or regulated out of existence.
- Give capitalism and free markets a chance – America has already tried everything else