This week, a key federal official cautioned against calls for net neutrality, the effort to expand government reach in the Internet marketplace. It’s a wise move to keep the Internet free of red tape. So why are lobbyists pushing for new rules?
Net neutrality holds that Internet network providers such as AT&T and Verizon should remain neutral with respect to their online content. Although the issue appears to be how best to ensure an open Internet, it’s obscuring the hidden agenda. Web sites and online content providers seek to use federal regulation to tie the hands of their broadband providers and prohibit them from charging businesses more for future services.
Some Internet giants like Google and Amazon.com would like elected officials and the public to believe that network providers will block consumer access to their Web pages if they refuse to pay for future premium services, projecting scary scenarios of an “Internet ghetto” or a “two-tiered” network. Other rhetoric invokes science fiction doomsday visions.
SavetheInternet.com, a pro-neutrality group, declares that in a world without net neutrality laws, “decisions now made collectively by millions of users will be made in corporate boardrooms.” Such scare tactics by net neutrality advocates seems to have paid off. A broad range of inexpert celebrities and organizations, from actress Alyssa Milano to the Feminist Majority Foundation, have declared support for fresh government intervention in the online market.
Calls for Congress to pass neutrality legislation have grown louder with every passing day, but even the bureaucrats, who normally relish any opportunity to expand their regulatory power, aren’t clamoring for a new net regime. In remarks Monday before a luncheon event in Aspen, Colo., Federal Trade Commission Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras criticized the net neutrality drive, asking why “so many of our nation’s successful firms have jumped in to urge the government to regulate.”
As Majoras stated, numerous federal agencies already have set a basic legal framework in place to preserve fair competition and business practices on the Internet, and “before adding to it, we should determine that the current scheme is insufficient” to meet future challenges.
She’s right that market forces work incredibly well in discouraging online censorship and malevolent business practices. What critics need to remember is that consumers drive the marketplace, and companies, not the government, should be allowed to choose the business model that works best. Public demand has already driven the vast speed, openness and accessibility on the Internet, and will continue to do so without bureaucratic aid.
Now, as consumption of rich online multimedia grows, the next-generation Internet will require billions of dollars in investments to expand bandwidth capacity. With network providers taking significant risks in response to this demand, it would be a mistake for Congress to intervene and regulate in anticipation of problems.Politicians and public figures alike should realize the absurdity of advocating more red tape to keep the Internet free.
Internet service providers have voluntarily upheld content-neutral practices without the need for government intervention, and consumers would never stand for blocked Web sites. As Chairman Majoras noted, Internet users “are powerful and tough customers.” Working within the current legal framework and adopting private sector solutions such as new business agreements and flexible service options bear greater potential for sustaining the long-term growth of the Internet.
If the loss of net neutrality principles was really a problem, advocates wouldn’t need to scare Americans in order to win their support. Using government regulation preemptively to shortchange business partners is a reckless abuse of the public policy process. New laws should be based on facts and reality, not fear and hypothetical situations.
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.