If you are anything like me, you are confused why so many people have recently fallen in love with an obscure bureaucratic policy regarding internet service. Your friends swear that “Net Neutrality” is the key to saving the internet from evil corporations who want to do… something. You turn to your wonky, computer-whiz friend for help, and do your best to follow along as he explains the details. You nod in bewildered-but-supportive agreement as he points to a graph of a Portuguese cellular data plan, but next thing you know you’re lost in legal minutiae from the Middle Ages. You must have missed something. But one thing is clear: your computer-savvy friend is certain that Trump is ruining the internet.
So what is the “Net Neutrality” debate really about? And why does everyone seem to have such a strong opinion about it?
The debate over “Net Neutrality” is an economic battle between two types of mega-corporations: those that provide bandwidth (Internet Service Providers) and those that use up a lot of bandwidth by providing streaming video content (Netflix, porn sites, etc.). The strong opinions on the issue are directly linked to the popularity of these different corporate players.
In 2016, 73% of internet bandwidth was used for video. This basically means that Americans are using most of their data consuming Netflix, YouTube, and porn. These consumers rarely complain about their video product. Even conservatives who disagree with the Leftist political bent of the Netflix corporation are unlikely to be bothered by the fact that “Dear White People” keeps popping up under “Trending Now” or “Top Picks for You”. What matters is that the video service is reliable. If a server does go down, users can go elsewhere on the internet for a few hours until the issue is resolved.
As much as video streaming services are loved, Internet Service Providers are almost universally hated. When ISP service goes down, internet users are forced to twiddle their thumbs until the issue is resolved. Correcting the problem can take days, often requiring specialists to be sent out to fix local hardware issues. Meanwhile, minimum-wage ISP employees take angry calls and listen to theories about how, if this was Bill Gates’ neighborhood, the issue would be resolved immediately. Employees respond with canned phrases required by corporate policy, which only makes things worse – as was seen in an infamous recording of a Comcast customer service call that went viral on the internet in 2014.
In the debate over “Net Neutrality”, companies like Netflix allege that ISP’s want to throttle user access to certain websites. ISP’s like Comcast deny that they would ever do such a thing. Given the average American’s experiences with these companies, it should come as no surprise that most Americans side with Netflix.
But Netflix is not really looking out for consumer interests. Like Comcast, Netflix is a corporation with profit as its primary motive. Since video service uses up a lot of bandwidth, the Netflix corporation fears that Comcast might require them to pay a fee for their outsized usage of internet services. “Net Neutrality” prevents this by empowering the FCC to force Comcast to treat Netflix data “equally” with all other data. Doing otherwise would mean that Comcast is “discriminating” against Netflix.
But discrimination against Netflix could actually benefit consumers. If Comcast were free to charge fees to corporations that hog bandwidth, it could lower prices for its internet customers.
The Big "What If?"
But what if the accusations are true? What if ISP’s really want to throttle access to certain internet content, regardless of the interests of their consumers? Shouldn’t the government protect us from that?
A good case can be made for increases in federal regulatory power to fix problems that arise in a free market. But, as a general rule, it is a bad idea to empower the federal government to fight problems that are, for the moment, purely hypothetical. Since the FCC adopted “Net Neutrality” as policy in 2015, nothing much has changed about internet service. It seems unlikely that much will change in the wake of it being repealed.
But even if, in the future, Internet Service Providers begin restricting content that their subscribers demand, “Net Neutrality” might not be the best answer to the problem. Regulatory increase would likely strengthen the connection between large ISP companies and the federal government, much like the regulatory apparatus of ObamaCare strengthened the bond between insurance companies and federal regulators. So, instead of opting for a regulatory model which increases an ISP’s need to hire lobbyists and cronies, why not instead opt for a public option? Municipal broadband could be truly “neutral”, run by public representatives on behalf of the public good.
Problem solved, right? Greedy corporations and profit motives are entirely out of the picture. Municipal administrators ensure that everyone, regardless of ability to pay, has access to government internet service that embodies “neutrality”. More importantly however, the rest of us still remain free to purchase services provided by a free market.
A Modern Cincinnatus
Few public figures have the wherewithal to relinquish power in the face of public pressure to retain it. George Washington famously stepped away from the presidency despite overwhelming support for a third term. FCC chair Ajit Pai has abandoned his own regulatory power over internet service despite overwhelming public support for retaining it. Unlike Washington, Pai is being vilified for his support of limited government.
Republicans need not oppose “Net Neutrality” in order to praise chairman Pai for his Statesmanship. They have some wiggle-room, much like they did on the DACA issue a few months ago. Many Republicans publicly supported DACA legislation while also being critical of Obama’s decision to enact DACA policy without Congress by means of executive order. Republicans can do the same thing, here. They can voice support for “Net Neutrality” legislation even while being critical of Obama’s FCC for going about it the wrong way.
And it certainly was the wrong way. In 2015, the FCC took it upon itself to change legal definitions in order to extend its regulatory reach over the internet (deciding to call the internet a “common carrier”). This was legally problematic, if not downright unConsitutional. Granting regulatory authority over the internet to the FCC should be the prerogative of the Legislature, not the Executive agency itself. Ajit Pai single-handedly rolled back this federal overreach.
You might think that Republicans in Congress would praise chairman Pai as a champion of limited-government. As it is, however, Republicans are not even bothering to defend him against his accusers, much less support him. While there are a few exceptions, Republicans for the most part are relieved to have been spared an uphill battle against public opinion. They are happy to let a Trump underling take the heat until public outrage blows over. This is cowardice. And Republican cowardice is another reason public opinion on this issue will remain lopsided.