Net Neutrality – Freedom of Speech or Corporate Heist?

The battle lines are sharpening over the question of “Net Neutrality” as FCC hearings and decisions loom. But what is really driving this push to change the status quo, and what’s really at stake for consumers?

Shakespeare got it wrong. In today’s world, a rose by any other name does not smell as sweet.  Politicians and lobbyists alike understand that how a proposal is named makes a world of difference. Associate a rallying cry with a motherhood-and-apple-pie name and your opponents are immediately cast in a negative light. For example, to vote against the Deleting Online Predators Act implied that one was voting for online predators – no matter that the proposal was misguided. What elected official can defend against that allegation in a 10-second sound bite?

The name ‘Net neutrality’ is equally deliberate and equally loaded – who wants to stand up and say I’m for Internet discrimination? Behind the guise of neutrality and a freedom-of-speech talking point are very powerful companies pushing for regulations that benefit their companies’ financial interests to the detriment of other companies’ financial interests. And, rather than have free market forces apply as they do rather admirably today, these companies’ are lobbying heavily to get regulators to stack the deck in their favor.

Online service providers and content creators want their services to be accessible to consumers (and get all the advertising revenue associated with their services) without having to collaborate with, or having to share proportional revenue with, network operators and carriers. They want to be able to use as much bandwidth as they choose to stream content, without having to pay more to do so.

Leading the opposition to the proposed legislation, Kyle McSlarrow, CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association scoffed at allegations that ISPs are harming free speech. He summed it up by saying “Internet Service Providers do not threaten free speech; their business is to enable speech and they are part of an ecosystem that represents perhaps the greatest engine for promotion of democracy and free expression in history.”

Why you should care about this battle between industry titans

Supporters of regulation claim they are protecting your freedoms, which begs a response to a few questions. From what attacks against your freedom of speech do you need protection? And, what unintended or punitive consequences might the proposed legislation cause?

Two incidents are used as freedom-of-speech cautionary tales by Net Neutrality supporters, but the very fact that there are only two cases to cite erodes rather than supports their position.  What other industry, or set of mega-companies, can claim so few missteps?  Certainly not the companies now crying foul.

In fact, given the restrictions content and services websites impose on your freedom of speech, their choice of waving the First Amendment banner is curious. The Terms of Use of any online services or content company make it abundantly clear that they assert the right to block your access, delete your content, or take other measures at their discretion if you do not comply with their limitations on your freedom of speech.

To be clear, I think establishing Terms of Use that restrict the actions and speech allowed on a website is an entirely appropriate corporate choice. Yet for companies to have these ‘anti-freedom-of-speech’ policies in place, while complaining that the terms and conditions Internet access providers have set limit your freedom of speech is absurd.

With only a couple of incidents in years of network management, Net Neutrality opponents point out that the requested regulations will impose government control on a problem that does not exist. I will go a step further and say large portions of the proposal look like an old sleight-of-hand trick – asking consumers to look in one direction while the real action is happening behind the scenes in a classic corporate coup.

The ideological, or financially motivated, pull towards more regulation sidesteps three key points:

  1. We have experienced an unprecedented blossoming of the Internet under the FCC’s historical policy of minimal regulation.
  2. Consumers have choices. There is healthy competition between Internet providers indicating that capitalism is working well within the industry. Competing in this space are cable TV, fiber optics cable, and telephone cable operators, Wimax and similar technology providers, along with wireless cellular networks, and satellite companies. This diversity of players is our best guarantee of a continued open and innovative Internet. None has the near monopoly position that some leading Net Neutrality supporters enjoy.
  3. Government bodies move slowly and are ill prepared to manage a nimble, competitive industry that must react and innovate quickly to compete not only nationally, but internationally. That needs to be able to offer increased speed, services, and safety in a competitive manner.

It does not take a genius to understand that if we want ever-faster transmission speeds and the ability to access ever-greater volumes of rich content, someone has to pay for the infrastructure and support required to provide it.  Right now, those costs are shared by consumers and the companies who want to send high volumes of content over Internet access provider’s networks.

The Net Neutrality proposal aims to change this revenue model by prohibiting carriers from placing bandwidth limits or adding usage fees to companies that are straining their bandwidth. However, it is unreasonable for companies who are raking in ad revenues to be able to freeload off the companies that built – and continue to bear the costs of maintaining – the networks.

If Internet providers have their hands tied by Net Neutrality regulations, what happens to network innovation? If you use considerably less bandwidth as you surf online, why shouldn’t you have the choice to pay less for your service? If companies can change drive legislation absolving them from paying for their Internet access, it leaves consumers to bear these costs.

Though the name Net Neutrality was carefully crafted, I recommend a different catchphrase: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.



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