Net Neutrality and Irony Meter Implosion

In looking up commentary on net neutrality, I found Kool-Aid chugger Chris Harris. (I was actually looking for “Logan Albright”, and found Harris as an inveterate quoter of Albright.) Amidst a bunch of other hogwash, Harris makes a plea to consider the ISPs:

Some dissenters against “Net Neutrality” are most concerned with the free-market implications — that is, the government will be able to interfere with ISPs’ freedom to provide service how and to whom they want. The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Ryan Radia says,

“It’s not about speech being regulated by the government. It’s about speech being regulated by private companies [as they have a right to]. If you build a network, you own it, you operate it and you decide that your policy will be just to allow certain types of messages. You should be free to do that. Of course, your subscribers are free to choose who their provider is.”

Neither Harris nor Radia address the level of transparency that would be required to make their version of the way things ought to be work. Let’s grant ISPs the power to specify what speech they like, and grant consumers the power to select among them to find a fit (ignoring the fact that no such choice is actually available across much of the USA). This implies that ISPs would have to publicly list what they do and do not like, and thus provide service for, such that a consumer can make an informed decision on which ISP to pick. That is an astounding level of transparency that would be needed. Has that ever happened in the past? Not that I know of. Is it likely to happen in the future? I don’t think so.

The argument from choice might make some small amount of sense if ISPs were a dime a dozen, and everyone had a plethora of choices in selecting an ISP, such that each person was guaranteed to be able to find an ISP whose idiosyncratic views on preferred content aligned exactly with their own. But that isn’t how the ISP game is played across most of the USA. In most places, ISPs have wrangled exclusionary geographic toeholds: there can only be one. If you want broadband internet, given a particular address, you get only one ISP that services that address. But, but… Harris and Radia might say, you’ve left out satellite ISPs! Well, yeah. Satellite internet is the way too expensive, not quite there yet, gateway to internet access. If you want gaming, you don’t want a satellite ISP. Nor for anything else requiring low packet latency, or good upstream bandwidth, or even lots of bandwidth. Nor are there a bunch of satellite ISP providers, either. It gets worse for Harris and Radia, too. ALEC has floated legislation hither and yon that, in fact, aims to prevent the free establishment of ISPs, especially those run by local governments who would offer the very broadest of views of acceptable speech. So not only is there the incontrovertible fact that ISPs have sought monopoly status in the time-honored tradition of the robber barons, but they also seek it via the legislatures.

In fact, the near-monopoly status of ISPs is a tremendous argument for net neutrality via Title II, rather than even a smidgen of an argument against it.

Nor do ISPs build and own “a network”. They build and provide a connection to a network, specifically, the Internet, which is a collaborative interconnected system that no single entity either owns or controls. Harris and Radia’s argument is the equivalent of your local gas station dictating to you which shopping plazas you can or can’t drive to.

The obvious counter to the notion that corporations playing at ISP status also want to privilege types of speech their users can access is that THEY ARE IN THE WRONG BUSINESS. Much like the idiotic notion that pharmacists should get a veto on filling prescriptions for personal reasons, it is an entirely wrong-headed attitude that an ISP can tell its end users that they can’t get to a site they want to go to. An ISP’s job is to deliver packets to and from an end user on the internet, nothing more and nothing less. Internet service is no longer simply a luxury item or non-essential service; more and more of our essential lives are tied up in internet access, including access to government services. Remember all those tax cuts? Well, one way the government at all levels has responded to not having much money to operate is to cut back on live service and increase reliance on online interfaces. The casual “let them eat cake” attitude that Harris and Radia adopt certainly demonstrates where their concern lies, and it isn’t anywhere near the end user. Their solution amounts to accepting whatever limitations your only real choice of ISPs happens to offer, or decide that you weren’t that interested in the internet anyway. Again, the solution here is “common carrier” status. If these companies want to play ISP, they need to do it as a fungible utility, not as “Phyllis’s Prudish House of Packets” or “Lisa’s Libertarian Link”. Internet access is too important in daily life to leave its provision to the chance relation that a corporation of your particular ilk in your particular locality deigns to give you the access that you need, or want.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

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