On the surface, net neutrality is a great idea. The free and open culture of the Internet is what makes it a beautiful thing, and price discrimination against users and websites would do terrible things to the blossoming Internet that we know and love.
While net neutrality guarantees that such price discrimination cannot happen, the market alone serves the same purpose. More importantly, however, net neutrality concedes the government’s ability to regulate the Internet — which is incredibly frightening.
Net neutrality refers to federal rules saying that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can’t do three things. They can’t charge more for streaming a video on Netflix than for sending an email, even though more data is used. They also can’t get around that rule by charging Netflix more money to provide streaming, and they can’t team up with Netflix to make Netflix services function really quickly while its competitor Hulu functions slowly, or not at all.
That’s why net neutrality seems awesome. The thought of an Internet where ISPs can price-discriminate and change up services on a whim frightens most people. However, to ensure net neutrality, the government — specifically the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) — needs to have power to regulate the Internet.
Last week, a court ruling stated that the FCC can regulate the Internet, but only in a certain way, because ISPs aren’t classified as common carriers like landline phone companies are. Since ISPs can only be regulated in a certain way, the FCC does not have the power to enforce net neutrality.
The first part of that ruling should have Internet users trembling in their swivel chairs. Now the government can regulate the Internet in many important ways, but if they reclassify ISPs as common carriers, then the government’s power over the Internet is nearly limitless.
Now remember, this government is the same body that launched the dreadful healthcare.gov website that failed to work and still isn’t securely or accurately sending data to healthcare companies. We’re trusting the Internet to the very same administration whose postmaster general said, “Digital is a fad, maybe this will work in Europe or something,” when confronting the possibility of digital forwarding for snail mail.
Let’s face it: the government isn’t very good at computers. According to Vanity Fair, for every person under 30 who worked on healthcare.gov, there were 10 people over 50 working on it. Think about that. For every brilliant Carnegie Mellon computer science major, there were 10 of your dad creating our national healthcare system.
Plus, it’s not like incompetence is the only problem with the government. Keep in mind that this is the same government that lied to us about Watergate, Vietnam, and the National Security Agency (NSA), among others. We cannot trust the government to do what it says it’s doing, and giving it more power over the Internet is a recipe for eventual disaster.
Speaking of the NSA, do we really want the government — the one that’s been using big companies like Google and Facebook to retrieve personal data — to have even more control over ISPs? Google and Facebook only have what consumers choose to give them. ISPs control all of the data that’s sent over the Internet. The Internet has paved the way for Big Brother, and giving the government more power over personal data isn’t the way to push Orwell’s dystopian future further away from our reality.
As if incompetence, deceit, and mass surveillance weren’t the only problems, we need to keep in mind that a little power only grows. When was the last time a government program got smaller? Net neutrality is just the beginning. Gradually the government will gain more power over the Internet; power corrupts. The more power put in the hands of more people, the more likely it is to be abused. People who want to keep the Internet free and open shouldn’t want it to be susceptible to government abuse.
Finally, the goals of net neutrality can be accomplished by the market. Imagine the outrage if people had to pay Comcast an extra fee to access Netflix. The boycotts would be unreal. Remember the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act, otherwise known as SOPA and PIPA, respectively? To protest those acts, Google went black for a day and people around the world vehemently protested. There’s absolutely no way the world would be okay with ISPs discriminating against users, and even if ISPs do, at least there are options. If Comcast starts being mean, people can always switch to Verizon. If Verizon isn’t in the area, it probably will be soon because Verizon knows that people want Netflix, and they don’t want to pay extra for the streaming service.
When the government is calling the shots, there is only one option. Unfortunately, the government does not have to compete, so it isn’t susceptible to the benefits of a good, old-fashioned tussle in the free market. If Verizon and Comcast start being mean together, there are antitrust laws to stop their collusion. There does not need to be extra legislation for that. We can already regulate them as companies doing bad things, rather than ISPs doing bad things.
Even if worst comes to worst and ISPs can price-discriminate, economics teach that price discrimination is actually a good thing, which makes markets more efficient.
Nobody will pay more for Internet than they currently do because the market has already settled on a sustainable clearing price for free, unlimited Internet, and competition will keep it that way. However, companies may start to offer budget Internet, a cheap alternative for people who only need to do basic things. My grandmother doesn’t need the capability to play World of Warcraft with people in Russia when she still thinks that everybody’s email address is email@example.com. The absence of net neutrality might actually pave the way for cheaper, more accessible Internet.
The Internet should remain the free, open, and innovative tool that it is. It has increased productivity and united long-lost family members. Though net neutrality is well-intentioned, the nightmare scenarios for government authority to regulate the Internet are limitless. The Internet is perfectly safe in the invisible hands of the market. Let’s keep it that way.