|Frank Wright, Ph.D.
President & CEO
Public policy discussions in Washington, DC often suffer from a clarity standpoint, because the terms used mean different things to different people. Nowhere is that more true than in what is called the Net Neutrality Debate. When people speak of Net Neutrality they often use the same terms to describe positions that are poles apart. This has become a significant issue since FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski weighed in on the question of Internet regulation.
The opposing camps in this Net Neutrality debate seem to divide their arguments along two lines. First, is the division between those who see themselves as free market advocates, versus those who favor a more activist regulatory apparatus. The second division is between the content providers and the network distributors. Both of these approaches overlook something far more elemental, with enormous consequences for a free society. But first a couple of important points.
Net Neutrality Is Not New
At times the Net Neutrality debate is couched in these terms: “We don’t want government to add regulatory burdens to a free Internet landscape. Less government regulation will allow an unfettered Internet to deliver maximum value to all parties.”
Former presidential candidate Steve Forbes put it this way:
What do the Obama administration, the Federal Communications Commission, a handful of liberal academic elites and Google all have in common? Answer: a radical plan to regulate the Internet that may totally upend the free market in today’s massive information economy.
Well, I am a free market guy, so on its face this argument resonates with me. Yet two points must be made about this so-called free market argument. The first is that access to the Internet is not a free market in the traditional understanding of that term. In fact, 80% of all access to the Internet is controlled by ten cable and telecommunication companies. These Internet “gatekeepers” do not have monopoly power, but with the cost of entry to new market participants staggeringly high, they are what might be called an industry oligarchy. Whatever you want to call it, using the term free market is quite a stretch.
Second is the misleading notion that this “free market” is now under duress by regulators who wish to excessively encumber it with new regulations. The fact is that the Internet, as we know it today, was birthed and grew to its present stature largely under Net Neutrality rules requiring non-discriminatory treatment of transmitted content. It was only a few short years ago that the FCC repealed existing Net Neutrality rules at the request of cable and telecommunication companies, who argued that they would not otherwise be able to make future investments in new technologies needed for the Internet infrastructure.
So, when you see this free market argument aggressively advanced as part of this Net Neutrality debate, at the very least you should reach for your saltshaker. A truly free market it is not. That does not mean, however, that government regulation is either necessary or desirable. We are living in a time of unprecedented expansion of government power into almost every area of our existence. As a matter of principle, such regulation should be resisted unless its public policy value can be indisputably established.
The second division in this debate seems to be between those who create, produce, and/or compile content – the very lifeblood of the Internet – and those who deliver, distribute, or otherwise enable the widespread availability of information – the essential key to the useful application of content. In this framework, the battle seems to be between Google (as Steve Forbes suggested above) and the cable and telecommunication companies. In an earlier day, we might have called it a battle between Time Magazine (content producer) and the U.S. Postal Service (content distributor). Here the battle lines seem largely drawn around self-interest – what a surprise!
The Missing Argument
Forgive the digression, but all of this reminds me of a favorite Wallace & Grommit movie called: The Wrong Trousers. But in this case it’s not the wrong trousers but the wrong argument. Or maybe we should not call the other arguments wrong but point out that another critically important argument is largely missing from this public policy debate.
The critical question in any debate over Internet regulation must be this: What will be its impact in either preventing or enabling viewpoint discrimination?
The First Amendment was not crafted to ensure that for-profit companies earn a reasonable return on their investment. It was written, debated, and ratified because both reason and experience prove that unrestrained government control of ideas and their expression is anathema to a truly free society.
We need not look only to historical examples to bear out this concern. One need only look at the recent experience of Google in China, or of cell phone companies in Iran, to see how unconstrained governments can use Internet regulation for viewpoint discrimination and criminal prosecution of disfavored elements of society.
Well, that could never happen in America, you say. Really? The cultural landscape of the last forty years is littered with statements like that, with each of those “that will never happen” now part of the fabric of a culture seemingly in decline.
As Christian broadcasters and program producers, the future of an unrestricted Internet has significant implications for us. Increasingly, our ability to reach the broadest audience may be at least partially dependent upon unrestricted access to the Internet. So we should be very much interested in this debate. Yet we must not become distracted by economic or utilitarian arguments.
At the end of the day (as we say so often on Capitol Hill), the critical concern for us is in the preservation of an unfettered Internet, so that we can continue to proclaim an unfettered Gospel.