With the House of Representatives voting to repeal the FCC’s net neutrality controls along with the recently announced merger of AT&T with T-Mobile, the debate over the legal and moral status of the internet continues.
There is no doubt that the internet is of enormous value to us all. The internet brings movies before our eyes in a matter of seconds, answers any trivia question we can think of, and enables us to buy whatever we want without leaving home. Yet, this marks the extent of an average American’s knowledge of the internet.
Without a clear understanding of the various technological, material, and business components that make up the internet, many become outraged upon learning that some internet service providers intend to charge their customers different prices for using different bandwidths or even which web sites are accessed.
Responding to the various ideas and business practices of internet service providers, some propose “net neutrality”: a series of government policies masquerading as a kind of safeguard for the internet.
Writing for The Minnesota Daily, Lolla Mohammed Nur offers the typical definition of net neutrality put forth by its proponents:
Put simply, net neutrality is a principle that says the Internet should remain free, open, and unregulated. Regardless of who is using a website—a corporation, a blogger, a college student—net neutrality says that everyone should have equal access to online services and websites, and every website should be given non-discriminatory treatment from Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
Nur goes on to write:
The problem with allowing major broadband corporations the power to choose what we see is that there would be no guarantee of nondiscrimination against certain websites. Our ISPs would be playing the role of gatekeeper over a medium that, since its inception, has been the hallmark of open and free speech.
To think of the issue in terms of allowing the broadband corporations to sell a service presupposes that the internet is a kind of public property. If we have a “right” to internet access or if it counts as a form of “public property,” ISPs can only do business with our permission. If this is the case, shouldn’t ISPs give internet access to every businessman, politician, bus driver, and bum with a heartbeat, free of charge? How can somebody advocate net neutrality while not being outraged when they get their Comcast bill at the end of the month?
Part of the answer has to do with fact that many proponents of net neutrality know—but dare not admit—the fact that the internet is private property. In an excellent article written for The Objective Standard, Ray Niles addresses this issue. He writes:
To hold that the Internet is a “commons” or “public property” is to evade its actual nature; the Internet is a network of privately owned personal computers, servers, and cable. Ignoring this fact and pretending to themselves that the Internet is “public property,” proponents of net neutrality seek government control over private property—specifically that of Internet service providers.
There is no getting around the fact that property is not something kept by permission. The internet is a service that is owned, produced and provided by businesses; a service that must be paid for like any other purchased product. For example, Mr. Niles compares the internet to books:
The fact that Internet access is a profound value does not justify government force against the ISPs that make it possible, any more than the fact that books are a profound value justifies government involvement in Barnes and Noble’s pricing, displaying, and stocking of books. The property of Internet service providers is theirs; as such, they have the moral right to use and dispose of it as they please, regardless of what their customers, FCC bureaucrats, and net neutrality advocates have to say about it.
For the same reason that it would be absurd to demand that Barnes and Noble charge the same price for a 100 page book as for a 1,000 page book, or shelve their bestsellers next to their flops, it is absurd to arbitrate by force which prices and packages an ISP is and is not “allowed” to offer. The reason is that a business must be (and has the right to be) the sole judge of the nature of their products. In determining the price of its products, for example, a business must account for the materials, labor, shipping costs, insurance, employee wages, customer affordability, and its own stake in the transaction, i.e., its own profit. These are just a few of the factors a business must take into account when determining which of their products to feature most prominently—ISPs included.
Those on both sides of the net neutrality debate should read the rest of Niles’ article. Until then, they should reconsider the principle of net neutrality. Its proponents would have you believe that it will keep the internet free, open, and unregulated. But taking this position on its own terms and to its fullest implications, net neutrality means: the Internet should be kept “free” by overlooking the rights of internet companies, “open” by removing choice over their products, and “unregulated” by regulating its producers. Net neutrality is the opposite of leaving the net alone, and if it is enforced, we’ll all pay the price.