Before net neutrality eats the world

The Federal Communications Commission has called off closed-door talks with tech lobbyists, talks meant to iron out a government driven compromise on “net neutrality.” The talks ended today in the wake of as-yet-unconfirmed reports that Google—the leading neutrality proponent—and Verizon may have reached a separate agreement enshrining non-neutral treatment of online content. No firm could ever actually support the policy as a general principle, and if this development hadn’t made that plain, it’d have been something else eventually.

Parties to the collapsed negotiations claim disappointment. As someone who’s spent years defending the unpopular concept of “long and thin” property rights in networks and wondering aloud where is our John Locke for the Digital Age, I’m not so disappointed myself. With this door closed, a window can open—one that recognizes that government and compulsory neutrality are not the sources of an “open Internet”—everybody’s buzz-phrase. The closed-door negotiations might have ultimately opened into the wrong room anyhow; all should take heart.

Years ago, the Competitive Enterprise Institute insisted in an FCC filing that the content companies themselves were going to want “tiers” and service quality guarantees on the Net rather than neutrality—and properly so.  There is no foreseeable future in which the very content providers once insisting upon neutrality will not themselves seek “preferential” treatment, or to pay less for non-vital transmissions, down the road.

For that reason and many others, we have long urged America’s high tech CEOs, as leaders of frontier industries, and before compulsory net neutrality eats the world, to get on a different train when it comes to cooperating (so called) with America’s anachronistic but bullying FCC.  CEOs on both sides will regret the harm compulsory “neutrality” does to their business models and customer service.

Rather than net neutrality, CEOs and Congress need to insist upon Agency Neutrality.  We need hands off, not public policy that picks arbitrarily between the content and infrastructure sectors, creating uncertainty in the communications marketplace seemingly as an end in itself.  The so-called non-discrimination principle, the one FCC is trying to strongarm into place now even without any congressional authority, itself bizarrely discriminates against infrastructure creation as an entrepreneurial phenomenon as such; and the very fact that policymakers allegedly expert in communications don’t know this or care about the creation of customized networks underscores the need to stop them. See page 12 of this filing to FCC for descriptions of the important role “discrimination” plays in infrastructure and content wealth creation and the danger of FCC’s neglect of these principles.

If a Federal Communications Commission didn’t exist now, I can’t imagine bothering to create one.  Initiatives like today’s predatory make-work-for-bureaucrats National Broadband Plan is little more appropriate to free enterprise than a National Elevator Plan (yes I proposed this) or a National 10-Pound-Paperclip Plan, both of which America also lack.