I’m not sure. In Britain’s Guardian, we read that American cable companies are “stunned” by U.S. president Obama’s “extreme” proposals and “strongest possible rules” to protect net neutrality—equal treatment for all traffic on the Internet:
“The cable industry strongly supports an open internet, is building an open internet, and strongly believes that over-regulating the fastest growing technology in our history will not advance the cause of internet freedom,” said NCTA president Michael Powell, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is now rewriting the internet rules.
In essence, under the Obama regime’s proposals, Internet providers would be reclassified as “common carrier” services like telephone companies, which means more regulation of prices and services. This will almost certainly mean a rise in prices because the ISPs must then contribute to government programs to bring services to underserved areas (possibly 16%). Given the ubiquity of the Internet these days, the concept of underserved areas may be a bit fuzzy, compared to the era of the land line telephone. But the fees will doubtless be added to bills regardless. Governments always find a use for money.
That said, the Guardian also reports that the overwhelming majority of four million submissions to the FCC called for more regulation, not less. Indeed, Save the Internet tells us that “The Internet Is In Danger” if giant Internet companies are allowed to charge differential rates for quicker access. At Open Internet, the concern expressed is that unregulated companies could charge people more depending on what services they use. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has argued in favour of Net Neutrality as well.
Ray Lin, a UC Berkeley student, doubtless speaks for many when he says,
By looking at what is best for the public and for the internet as a whole, net neutrality laws should be put into place to preserve the characteristics of the internet that make it unique.
Whoa!! The Internet did not get started or thrive through bureaucracy and regulation. Its uniqueness will not be preserved that way.
I’m still learning on these issues, and keeping an open mind. One red flag, of course, is that through acquisitions and mergers in progress, Internet companies like Comcast and AT&T could become a monopoly that behaves like an unelected government (but without their own police, prisons, or armies). Indeed, Internet companies have shown themselves very willing to co-operate with government surveilllance for a fee, Net Neutrality notwithstanding.
This much I know is true though: Rhetoric is cheap, but “free” can be expensive. Efforts to protect people from price increases or service decreases through legislation have a decidedly mixed history.
Consider rent control. It is immensely popular politically because it brings immediate relief to cash-strapped tenants. But generally at the price of reducing rental housing construction over the long term. The politician is long retired on a generous public pension by the time the absence of those never-were buildings is felt.
Second, one of the things that has made the Internet great is that government is not running it. If it were, we would still be stuck with dial-up, if my experience of the over-regulated telephone industry in Canada some decades ago is any guide. And government’s actual use of the Internet does not fill me with confidence either. See, for example, a governing political party’s threats to its supposed supporters if they don’t vote.
Of course governments want control of so powerful a tool! So does everyone else. And everyone wants control for the public good. Can anyone cite an instance of someone wanting it explicitly for the public bad?
But is the Internet, after all, a post-government phenomenon? At least post- the kind of government favoured by those who look to regulation to keep the Internet free?
Back in the 1960s, at Advanced Research Projects Agency, the not-yet–named Internet was envisioned as a system that could ship data around after a nuclear attack, by re-establishing connections through any network that was still running. There was no nuclear attack, but there was a steadily growing demand for that kind of system, and the world moved online. One outcome is a vast variety of transnational alliances and networks. Eventually, that may mean changing roles for national governments.
It’s really too soon for forecast, but so much of the rhetoric around Net Neutrality sounds like it is written in the past tense. Anyway, here are two current views:
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.