So, many fellow libertarians probably will be upset with me when they hear that I don’t give a rabbit’s left toenail about the whole “net neutrality” regulations being considered by the FCC. Even the ever-stunning Shelly Roche hasn’t managed to convince me that I should care – and her video updates typically convince me plenty.
Now, let me stop you, my compatriots, before you bombard me with arguments for why net neutrality is anathema to the the Intarwebs. I already know them all. I already know that more regulation is Bad™. I already know that this opens the door to future regulations that are Bigger Bad™. I already know that it’s an attempt to “fix” a non-existant problem, and therefore is a de facto case of the cure being worse than the disease. I understand, and agree, that if you own both the content and delivery system, then you should be allowed to distribute your own content in a preferred manner. That said, let me repeat what I said above:
I don’t care.
Before I explain why I don’t care, first let me say that it’s fallacious to equate my apathy with approval. That sort of specious argument is little more than thinly veiled ad hominem attack (i.e., “If you had the appropriate moral character and fortitude, then you would actively oppose whatever it is I want you to oppose”). The local C4L leader tried this approach the other day with an e-mail he sent out via a Meetup distribution list; I didn’t bother to answer, partly because I find it insanely ironic that a libertarian was attempting to browbeat other libertarians for not doing what he thinks they should be doing, but mostly because not responding was the bigger irony. To suggest that inaction equals approval is a silly rhetorical bludgeon that I don’t believe is ever ultimately successful. So please, don’t bother using it on me.
Why I don’t care about “Net Neutrality”
As the headline to this post suggests, I believe the true problem has nothing to do with the neutrality (or lack of neutrality) of the Internet. Lefties see the Internet, like they see everything, as some kind of common good that should be shared by all, and that everyone has an equal right to BitTorrent the latest episode of Weeds. Righties see the Information Superhighway as a private road, which they should be allowed to restrict access to as they see fit – and of course, the way they see fit is by charging a toll at both the entrance and the exit.
Unfortunately, many libertarians seem to side with the righties on this one. (To be sure, it would be unfortunate if they sided with the lefties too.) They seem to be blinded by the idea that private companies should be allowed to do what they want with their own property. Which is, of course, true, but that truth has nothing to do with how the current Internet works.
The Internet runs (mostly) on the same telco infrastructure as cable television and landline phones. This infrastructure is a huge tangle of wires that were lain with the help of government subsidies (through tax breaks mostly, but still…), emininent domain land grabs, and monopolies supported by federal, state and local governments. The problem of monopoly especially becomes an issue when you live in a smaller city or even more rural area. To argue that these are private assets created by private companies seems at best misinformed.
Furthermore, the telcos themselves are far from the laissez-faire standard bearers that they make themselves out to be. They have had no problem running to the government to get regulations passed when it benefited themselves (in the name of The Public Good™ of course). For example, when AT&T got caught spying on millions of customers’ telephone calls for the NSA, they went straight to Congress to seek retroactive immunity in the form of special legislation, knowing that their customers very likely would win a class-action lawsuit against them for breach of contract, among other things. Ascribing well-intentioned free-market values to such a company seems a bit of a stretch.
The biggest reason that I am not convinced by the mainstream libertarian argument against net neutrality, however, is that allowing the major telcos to discriminate against certain content – or if you don’t like that description, to give preferred access to premium content – actually destroys the current freedom so many free marketeers espouse. I don’t buy the slippery slope argument that Joe Schmoe will lose his ability to give vidoe shout-outs to his tweeps, but it undoubtedly is true that he will have fewer options to do so. And even if you don’t care about Mr. Schmoe’s digital salutations, you might care that it will become harder for smaller entrepreneurial endeavors to pay for distribution of their content, artificially entrenching larger competitors. Consumers will suffer even more when, for example, Barnes & Noble uses its contract with AT&T to block access to Borders, and Borders retaliates through their partnership with Verizon. Supporting a statist regime that results in this sort of likely reduction in market choice seems an odd position for libertarians to take.
But lest it seem like I’m supporting net neutrality, let me make it clear that I do not. Regulation is obscene; I am offended by it. My fellow libertarians are right when they say that it merely opens the door to more regulation. In fact, the only reason that net neutrality even seems reasonable to many is because of the current regulatory environment that favors the telcos. At this point, the telcos are sitting on millions of miles of infrastructure that they gathered by force of law (and gun), not to mention bazillions of hertz of radio spectrum that is being used inefficiently when it’s being used at all. Deregulating these public goods – such as by repealing the laws that allow telcos to claim monopolies over wires that were erected or lain through eminent domain grabs – would go a lot longer way to ensuring “neutrality” than a new set of regulations from the FCC. But of course, that will never happen.
So, when it comes down to it, we’re screwed either way. Which is why ultimately, I choose not to care what happens.