"Net neutrality": Destroyer of internet freedom
By Alex Epstein
Advocates of "net neutrality" are apoplectic amid reports that ISP Comcast slowed down file-sharing programs on its network. The FCC is threatening action against Comcast, while advocates of a new net-neutrality law sponsored by Congressman Edward Markey are taking the occasion to claim such legislation is necessary to protect "Internet freedom."
But net neutrality is antithetical to Internet freedom.
What exactly is net neutrality? It is the idea that ISPs should not be able to favor some types of data over others; their networks must be "neutral" among all the data they carry. What if ISPs, who have invested billions in upgrading their transcontinental networks, want to give certain web traffic higher priority so that they can guarantee quality service for applications consumers will pay extra for, such as high-quality live broadcasts? Too bad. What if they want to ensure generally high performance by placing limitations on bandwidth usage, as Comcast is apparently doing, so that a few users cannot slow down the rest with huge, often illegal, video files? Under the egalitarianism of net neutrality, such actions are forbidden.
Net-neutrality supporters claim that if ISPs are free to give preferential treatment to certain websites' data, they might drastically slow down un-favored or less-wealthy websites, diminishing their ability to offer content and make innovations. A prominent net-neutrality coalition cautions: "If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, you may be impeded from providing the 'next big thing' on the Internet."
But such scenarios make no economic sense. For any of the nation's competing ISPs to offer customers slow, patchy, let alone nonexistent, access to the websites they seek to visit would be commercial suicide. As for innovation, websites are free to continue using standard, non-prioritized Internet service--which ISPs would have every incentive to preserve at appealing speeds by expanding their overall bandwidth (as they continuously do). The fact that this would be slower than premium service does not mean that it would be slow, just as UPS's decision to offer overnight delivery did not lead them to suddenly degrade their Ground shipping. Premium Internet services would enable, not stifle, innovation, by giving websites creative options they did not have before.
The specter of ISPs offering glacial access to certain websites is a smokescreen, designed to obscure the net-neutrality movement's goal: preventing anyone from having superior, unequal access to customers. In the minds of net-neutrality advocates, the Internet is a collectively owned entity, to which all websites have an equal claim and are entitled "equal access." As the title of a leading net-neutrality group proclaims: "It's our Net."
But it isn't.
The Internet is not a collectivist commune; it is a free, voluntary, and private association of individuals and corporations harmoniously pursuing their individual goals. (While it began as a government-funded project, the Internet's ultra-advanced state today is the achievement of private network builders, hardware companies, content providers, and customers.) Because the Internet is based on voluntary association, no one can properly compel others for their ad space, bandwidth, publicity--or network priority. Those who create these values have the right to use and profit from them as they see fit. Google has no more right to demand that Verizon be "neutral" with its network than Verizon has a right to demand that Google be "neutral" with its coveted advertising space.
The only thing equal about the participants on the Internet is that all have equal freedom to deal with others voluntarily. This means they are equally free to compete for the bandwidth, dollars, and talents of others--but not entitled to an unearned, equal portion of them.
It is the freedom of participants on the Internet to offer and profit from whatever products, services, or content they choose that has made it such a phenomenal source of content and innovation. Net neutrality would deny ISPs that freedom. It would deny their right to engage in creative, innovative, and profitable activity with those networks--in the name of those who demand their bandwidth, but are unable or unwilling to earn it in a free market.
The widespread support for net neutrality among successful Internet companies--including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, eBay, and Amazon--is short-sighted and contemptible. These companies, which have benefited greatly from the unimpeded freedom of the Internet, are now trying to deny the same freedom to innovative ISPs and ambitious competitors under the egalitarian banner of "equal access." This is an invitation for any clever moocher to demand "equal access" to their hard-earned resources; indeed, Google last year was sued because its proprietary search engine allegedly gives "unfair" rankings to certain companies.
The Internet is one of the great bastions of freedom and innovation in our civilization. Let us keep it that way by rejecting the latest push for "net neutrality."
Alex Epstein is an analyst at the Ayn Rand Institute, focusing on business issues. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand--author of "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead." Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2008 Ayn Rand® Institute. All rights reserved.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!