Message To Netflix: You Didn’t Build That!

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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A boring topic got a little more interesting this week when President Obama suggested the internet should be regulated as a utility and Ted Cruz fired back on Twitter (and later, in an op-ed) comparing net neutrality to ObamaCare.

The result? Not only did Cruz take a beating on the internet, but Obama’s defenders did a much better job of explaining a recondite policy in a simple manner (who can argue with cartoons?).

But it’s hard to escape the fact that Obama’s answer is a solution in search of a problem. Yes, there could one day be a problem — if the internet service providers decided to become autocratic — and if the backlash from consumers weren’t enough to incentivize good behavior …

In truth, Republicans have put forth better solutions to address this unlikely possibility. Last year, for example, Senators Heller, Johnson and Ayotte made a solid argument for why Congress (not the FCC) should update Telecom laws for the 21st century, empowering consumers by fostering competition.

But again, this is the kind of thing that policy wonks read and comprehend.

A simpler argument against net neutrality came from entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who simply stated: “I’m more concerned the government will f— it up.” His simple and succinct comment got to the heart of concerns about Obama’s proposal, but failed to provide a roadmap forward.

Having lost the first round of the messaging war, it’s clear conservatives are in need of a better explainer — something that is simple enough for everyone to understand, while avoiding the problem of promoting a false analogy. So I started asking around. Here’s how a smart friend who is a Senate aide frames the issue:

The best way to think of this is like a highway. Somebody other than the government builds the roads. And now, there’s an incentive to get more traffic flowing, in order to get more payload to the consumer.

Remember the “You didn’t build that line?” It’s ironic that Obama said that. Because in this case, he’s backing the people who spent no money building the roads — but make a ton of money off of using them.

The people Obama is supporting are now worried the road builder will invent his own vehicle (which would then get to ride in the fast lanes) and force everyone else into one lane.

Netflix is like one of those companies that moves entire houses. Flags, multiple vehicles, and one lane almost totally shut down. Is it fair to everyone else? Shouldn’t the road builder be able to innovate and perhaps create a new lane for people hauling massive payloads? Netflix would say that’s a violation of net neutrality.

Now switch over to wireless. This is a road with an on-ramp (cell towers) every ten feet, or so. These on-ramps are flooded with massive data every second. Oh wait, here comes an emergency vehicle with a message that a tornado is coming. Should they get priority on the road? Under net neutrality, the answer is “no.”

Back to the freeway. If a road builder were blocking all cars except their own, the free market would eventually punish that decision — consumers would use a different road. This is why Congress must ensure competition — so consumers can choose and these hypotheticals remain exactly that, hypothetical.

Of course, things always get partisan in this town. Liberals think the freeway has become too successful — too important — to allow Internet service providers to control it. They want the government to act as traffic cops, who will have to be informed of every pothole that needs fixing. Repairs will slow, and it will take money to pay the traffic cops — money that could be used to innovate new roads or to fix problems.

Conservatives on the other hand will say, “We don’t need traffic cops. our cops are the consumers.” They will know if their cars aren’t showing up — if the content they requested is blocked, degraded, or buffered. But before that happens, Congress ought to make sure there is a choice for these consumers to vote with their feet (or wheels, as it were) by hopping on another freeway.

The answer is not to allow government to regulate the internet to death, but neither is it to bury our heads and fail to prepare for preventable problems. As is often the case, the answer is to foster competition.

Life is a highway. [As Tom Cochrane sang] I want to ride it all night long.