With all of the debate in Washington over cap and trade and health care it’s not hard to see how the regulation of things other than our air and health can get lost in the shuffle. One such item is the Internet. So-called net neutrality regulation is starting to be enacted by the Federal Communications Commission, and some members of Congress are pushing for legislation that would take things even further.
To phrase things a bit more simply than the FCC does, net neutrality is regulation that mandates that, provided you aren’t violating any laws, your Internet service provider must treat all content, applications and devices equally. While I’m normally all for equal treatment, not permitting an entire industry to engage in any sort of price discrimination wouldn’t make any sense anywhere else and doesn’t make sense for the Internet.
Firstly, when you go to a store to buy everything from food to cars, cell phones to sports equipment, different items cost different amounts. Limiting the ability of sellers to base their prices on only certain aspects of the items they are selling would clearly not make any sense, leading to a lack of consumer choice and stifling innovation. There is no reason the Internet is any different than these other consumer goods in that respect.
Secondly, the Internet in its current form has been an indisputable success. Although the need for regulation and oversight are matters of debate for industries like airlines, health care and anything that emits carbon dioxide, making the case that regulation and government oversight have in any way made the Internet what it is today is damn near close to — if not outright — impossible. Anyone with a computer, a couple of hours and a bit of motivation can go start his or her own website or take even less time to blog, tweet and e-mail on websites created by other people.
While regulating Internet service providers is a far cry from something like a license to go online, I for one have no desire to start testing just how slippery that slope may be. Potentially interfering with the breakneck speed at which innovation occurs online ought to require more than hypothetical problems that have yet to materialize.
Banning price discrimination by Internet providers functionally forces everyone to purchase the same Internet. Think of the Internet post-net neutrality as a Cadillac, not too shabby as a form of transportation, but clearly not for everyone; there are many people who would be just as happy to save their money and go with the beat-up Chevy. Net neutrality is intended to force everyone to have access to the same version of the Internet, and just like transportation, a one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t cut it.
I’m sure there are some people out there who have no idea what “bit torrent” means and would be happy to save a couple bucks each month in exchange for giving up their ability to do so. I would also be willing to bet there are some people who would be perfectly fine with their Internet service provider favoring certain content or devices if it would save them a couple of bucks each month. Maybe Disney will want to slow down content from NBC or Google will find it worth its while to offer a monetary incentive if you use their browser. There is no reason to limit the ability of Internet service providers to offer that beat-up Chevy version of the Internet, especially when people could be spending saved money on everything from paying down their credit card debt to health care bills to college tuition. Forcing them to buy a Cadillac just to have transportation doesn’t help anyone.
On the other hand, there are those people who would be willing to pay for an Internet connection even better than that being offered today. Who knows what form that connection might take? Maybe it will be in the form of the 1 gigabit per second connections promised by the mythical Google Fiber; maybe something else.
Whatever it may be, forcing everyone to purchase the same Internet won’t help us get there. Allowing Internet service providers to charge differing amounts for different versions of the Internet will allow innovation to be channeled into the highest demanded areas in terms of the ability of consumers to access the Internet.
People are so caught up in trying to encourage innovation in the content and applications that they are willing to sacrifice innovation in the way people access the Internet. It would be a shame to kill innovation in how people are able to access the Internet in the name of encouraging content-based innovation. But in the end, the important thing is that we all have the ability to go online and write angry blog posts, tweets, e-mails and comments complaining about whatever decision is ultimately made.
Patrick McEwen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in nuclear engineering.