Saturday, June 25, 2011

The net neutrality conundrum

'Network Neutrality' is a hotly debated topic these days. It seems every few months, the concept of net neutrality rears its head when some large ISP enters into talks with a content provider to offer a faster connect to that providers content in exchange for money. It's a good deal for content providers who seek a competitive edge because traffic to their site would be fast while traffic for competitors sites, at least those who didn't pay, would be substantially slower but it's a horrible deal for consumers who may find their favorite websites slow to access and difficult to navigate.

So it's no surprise that Congress and the FCC have taken up the network neutrality discussion and both sides are heavily lobbying lawmakers for legislation that comes down squarely on their side.  When the issue first started being discussed, I supported a Congressional network neutrality bill because I thought it was the only way to make sure the Internet playing field was kept fair for both small and large players. On second thought, though, I now realize I was wrong. Pushing for legislation on either side of the issue is actually a red herring and could have very severe unintended consequences.

See, asking Congress to pass legislation to protect freedom and fairness on the Internet is actually giving Congress the authority to control the Internet - or at least the American part of it. We are expressly giving them expanded regulatory control of a network who, by its very nature, is uncontrollable.  Though it might be for 'the public good' we are expanding the control government has over our online lives. That might seem like a good thing in this case but what happens then when government acts against the best interests of the people and in the interests of corporations instead?  If we've already ceded regulatory control to them via network neutrality, where do we draw the line and how do we stop the landslide once it starts?

Network neutrality could also have negative effects in the physical world too. How many times have you seen ads on television that say 'American Express is the only card accepted here? How many times have you seen local merchants give discounts to people who pay with cash instead of credit cards because they want to avoid the discounts credit card companies impose on their sales? Couldn't it be argued that this is the physical world version of network neutrality? It's showing favoritism to a certain network of people (users of cash or people who hold American Express cards) over their counterparts and offering a reward to those who give the merchant whatever they want.

Couldn't we then argue that, if we demand 'fairness' by legislation on the Internet, we should also demand it in the physical world?  Why should such 'protections' extend only to the digital world? Perhaps there should be laws governing 'monetary network neutrality'.  See the potential problem? Every extension of government control leads to greater extensions in the future because they have a unique way to find new ways to interpret 'rights' and 'protections' in expanded ways.

So what's the answer then? Nobody wants a slower Internet just because a company didn't pay what amounts to an extortion fee to an ISP. Here's an idea: Instead of pushing for increased government control, we should actually be advocating that the government take a 'hands off' attitude with the Internet and allow the free market to rule on network neutrality.  Allow ISP's that want to strike deals with content providers to do so and allow those who want to treat everyone equally to do so. Then, let consumers vote with their dollars as to which ISP's live or die based on their policies. In a free market, freedom wins because the consumer, not the government, is in control. Consumers voting with their dollars have a much more powerful impact on the behavior of corporations than any law ever could and the market is often very brutal to bad actors.

I would argue that the free market is the only way to guarantee network neutrality. Corporations can find ways around laws but it's not so easy to find ways around an angry consumer. Give the customer what they want or die is how the free market works and that's just as it should be. Network neutrality isn't a government issue, it's a consumer one and, thankfully, it's one consumers can solve quite easily.

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