Monday, August 16, 2010

Net Neutrality And Freedom

Today the tea partiers announced they were against neutrality; they call it “an affront to…free markets.” As far as you can generalize for a disparate, decentralized group empowered by the internet to be inchoate, the tea partiers are right: net neutrality does infringe upon freedom and free markets. Let’s consider a world without net neutrality: two private parties would exchange services and/or goods consensually—i.e. one party pays another for faster internet service. That’s the free market, and while you can have a big dispute over the matter, the free market can take credit for a pretty nice chunk of the prosperity we enjoy today.

Economists like to say there’s no such thing as a free lunch; a similar thing could be said about freedom. Similar, but not completely the same: something like, say, gay marriage would be a freedom free lunch—it expands some people’s freedom while harming others not a whit. But certainly it’s true that in most rich democracies these days that most of the arguments about freedom are arguments about areas in which there’s no freedom free lunch: granting freedoms to some parties might necessarily mean curtailing freedoms of others.

So it is with repealing net neutrality. Let’s examine the issue closely about what a world without net neutrality would mean: it would mean some parties would pay internet service providers for faster connection speeds. This would mean the decision about which websites were allowed to progress faster would be based on the internet service providers’ discretion, which would often be informed by money, but would frequently also be informed by nonmonetary considerations. That is, the ISPs might be tempted to put objectionable material on the slower tier, regardless of ability to pay. I’m guessing pornography would be put in the slower tier, and you know the political protests are not far behind. This would disadvantage these groups’ freedom. And then there’s the monetary issue. Who wouldn’t be able to pay? You could imagine the precincts of the internet that are resolutely nonprofitable—the Wikipedias of the world—would be disadvantaged. Then there’s the small producers of the internet world: say, the bootstrappers who have a good idea and want to start a business on their own with little interference (at first) from venture capitalists and their money. This is an ideal worth upholding, as the vitality of the internet is based on the organic efforts of the small producers of the internet.

At present, the U.S. is not only stagnating, but it is frozen: income mobility is increasingly turgid, and incumbent businesses are securing ever-more power and income for itself. This is in many ways a perversion of our national ideal, that hard work and a good idea can combine for spectacular rewards for both the individual and society. That national ideal, I’d assert, is nowhere more alive than in the internet and the startup culture that feeds it: ten years ago Google wasn’t much; no it’s one of the biggest and one of the most important companies in the world. That’s attributable to internet democracy.

The ecosystem that allows this democracy seems very fragile. Because it’s the culture in Silicon Valley and elsewhere that encourages and promotes the efforts of startups and small producers that nurtures the dream and the reality of internet democracy and business. If you make it harder—much harder—for startups to come into existence, as charging money for good service must, then you risk killing the ecosystem. This is an ecosystem, note, that has proven to be an extraordinary blessing to human welfare and business, and promises still more blessings in the future.

So it seems to me that the freedom of small producers is more valuable than the freedom of the big businesses. But it’s worth asking why exactly they want to disrupt the current order. I don’t find many arguments to be worth responding to, but there is one I think is worth considering: streaming video. (Streaming video is speculated to be an important reason for the Google-Verizon deal that started this whole outburst of controversy.) The ISPs argue that streaming video is such a resources hog that it needs to be fast-tracked while other, less-intensive websites, are slow-tracked. This is an argument worth considering because streaming video has so much potential to upend our lives for the better, and streaming video is likely worth a few sacrifices. But of course, if the principal problem is speed, why not simply install more broadband? It’s been well-established that the U.S.’s internet speed is deplorable in comparison to other countries, and one of those countries that has much faster internet—South Korea—has also much better streaming video. It seems to me wholly unnecessary to sacrifice net neutrality for streaming video, even if that trade is available. I’m not even sure that that’s the case. Since that’s so, it’s of no use to sacrifice the freedoms of most people for the freedoms of a few.

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