The Federal Communications Commission is due to publish a new set of "net neutrality" rules in the Federal Register, after a six month wait. The rules' arrival will revive an ongoing debate in which "liberals" want to regulate the broadband Internet and "conservatives" want to liberate it.
As a card-carrying, knee-jerk, and scarred-in-battle liberal -- I was Undersecretary to Ron Brown, Mickey Kantor, and Bill Daley in the Clinton Administration -- I can't for the life of me understand why my fellow-travelers want to impose this burden on the burgeoning broadband Internet. Let me use this space to explain why the Left should back off this "neutrality" charade and move on to a better agenda.
First, "neutrality" means simply that everything on the Internet must travel at the same speed, whether it's the Bluetooth device that connects my cardiac monitor to a hospital or a kid downloading a video of a cat playing the xylophone. It's an awkward proposition, but proponents say it's needed to protect broadband providers from cutting off some sites and content, and to allow "the little guy" to challenge the Big Websites -- Google, Facebook, Netflix and the like.
Frankly, these explanations are hooey. For one, broadband providers -- cable, telco, wireless, and other companies who have paid tens of billions for the privilege of competing for your allegiance -- know that their job is to bring you everything the Internet offers. Would you subscribe to an ISP that gave you Fox News but not Olbermann, or gave iTunes an exclusive on music, or only allowed Warner Brothers movies on their system? It's a ridiculous proposition (and one that could be addressed with anti-trust law if I'm entirely wrong, which I'm not).
And, second, the Internet isn't "neutral" right now! Big websites cache their content in server farms around the world, like squirrels burying nuts for the winter. That way, they reach you faster than the "little guy," even though the net is allegedly "neutral." But this takes the kind of resources only the Big Websites can generate. Want proof? Well, who's funding the "neutrality" push to protect the "little guy?" It's the Big Websites themselves!
When you get down to it, "neutrality" isn't about "open" versus "closed" Internet or the "big guy" versus the "little guy." It's about one bunch of Big Businesses -- Google/YouTube, Netflix, and the other Big Websites, who want to travel the Internet at no cost (even if their videos and other content hog bandwidth) and the infrastructure providers, who are looking for ways to cover the costs of the growing demand for bandwidth. YouTube and Netflix now account for almost half the system's use at peak periods! Not only does video hog bandwidth, it has to be managed much more carefully if consumers are going to enjoy watching Internet video as much as they like reading emails that arrive in a burst. What's the "left's" view on a battle between these business interests? Frankly, we favor these "congestion charges" in every other environment -- why not here?
And allowing any website that wants a faster, uninterruptable connection to its users to buy it at posted prices would lead to a new wave of broadband innovation -- telemedicine and remote education, live sports and entertainment events, on-line gaming and exploration. Rather than defending innovators, "neutrality" retards these innovations.
There are plenty of places where competition leads to ruination that demands regulation -- banks whose bad bets bring the system down, or polluters whose actions threaten the planet's sustainability. But competition is giving us a burgeoning, innovative broadband network that creates jobs even as it enriches our experience -- where was the multi-billion "aps" industry five years ago? The real, progressive broadband agenda is expanding the network into schools, the health care sector, and underserved rural and urban neighborhoods while protecting our privacy, not regulating it to no productive end. There's no good reason for us to get stuck in "neutral."
Ev Ehrlich is the President of ESC Company, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm that addresses economic and business problems. ESC Company has among its clientele firms from the telecommunications industry.