In dictionary world, like the one our founders lived in, the word “regulation” means to make regular—to make sure something can happen regularly, without blocks or interference. That’s what the founders meant by regulating interstate commerce.
But in today’s government, regulation means something else: governmental power to decide when, how, and whether something can happen. It’s arguable that all government regulation prevents, rather than provides, regularity of something happening.
So, when the president announces the need for a brand new public utility, we know it is about government interfering and controlling what is already happening. This week, the president’s speech on net neutrality gives us an opportunity to compare what he says with what will actually happen if his plan is put in place.
Here is the transcript of the minute-and-44-second announcement. I’ve highlighted portions that set my teeth on edge:
Ever since the Internet was created, it’s been organized around basic principles of openness, fairness, and freedom. There’re no gatekeepers deciding which sites you get to access. There’re no toll roads on the information superhighway. This set of principles, the idea of net neutrality, has unleashed the power of the internet and given innovators the chance to thrive.
Abandoning these principles would threaten to end the internet as we know it. That’s why I’m laying out a plan to keep the internet free and open. And that’s why I’m urging the Federal Communications Commission to do everything they can to protect net neutrality for everyone. They should make it clear that, whether you use a computer, phone or tablet, internet providers have a legal obligation not to block or limit your access to a website. Cable companies can’t decide which online stores you can shop at, or which streaming services you can use. And they can’t let any company pay for priority over its competitors.
To put these protections in place, I’m asking the FCC to put these under Title II of a law known as the Telecommunications Act. In plain English, I’m asking them to recognize that for most Americans, the internet has become an essential part of everyday communication and everyday life.
The FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately this decision is theirs alone. But the public has already commented nearly 4 million times, asking the FCC to make sure consumers, not the cable company, gets to decide which sites they use.
Americans are making their voices heard, and standing up for the principles that make the Internet a powerful force for change. As long as I’m president, that’s what I’ll be fighting for too.
There’s a lot of language manipulation going on here. The first paragraph is basically a fact, and a principle we all agree on.
The second paragraph introduces a crisis: the imminent abandonment of the principle of open internet that we agree on. Where is the threat coming from? He doesn’t say.
I did some research. It’s complicated. It has something to do with the blurring of separation between mobile internet access and the more literal connection of an at-home internet connection. It also has to do with some services, such as Netflix, wanting faster access, so as to provide customers the faster downloads they want.
The claim is that any differentiation is wrong; Netflix, for example, shouldn’t be able to pay for higher streaming speeds, because that would be a disadvantage to those not paying for those faster speeds. And there’s a proposed fear (not really exemplified so far in real life) in which a cable company might decide not to stream one source as fast as it streams another, which might disadvantage certain companies.
So, up until now the internet has been open and innovative—without government regulation to speak of. The Internet is something like the oil boom in North Dakota—succeeding on private land, because government disallowed drilling on public land but couldn’t control private land drilling. (The president claimed the oil boom as a hallmark accomplishment of his presidency, nevertheless.) The Internet is worldwide, open, and free. We pay entrepreneurial companies to give us better and faster—and moving toward less expensive—access to it. All of this has taken place in a free market, not because of government encouragement or subsidy. Government should get credit for nothing except so far staying out of the way of this example of the free market.
So one could assume that, if there is a threat to what we want—if a company limits our service—we will look elsewhere in the market for alternatives. For example, in rural areas, where a cable company might try to control access, there would be a ready market for satellite services. The market has a way of working things out.
But the president is claiming that there’s a public outcry. Four million requests to the FCC for net neutrality. First, the number, as of mid-September was 3.7 million opinions. That’s around 1% of the population. Not all were in favor, but a vast majority were. But, in the election we just had, did it come up anywhere? Was that on the mind of the public? Did a single official get elected because of his/her position in favor of getting government to insert itself in controlling the Internet?
There’s a difference between being in favor of a free and open internet and being in favor of a new regulatory agency, or relabeling the internet as a public utility that the government can control.
Let’s explain it in terms of a highway, since “information superhighway” is a term the president used. So, we have a freeway, with multiple lanes. No one is limiting you, as a driver, to only certain lanes. But someone starts a fear campaign saying, “Red cars could get special treatment; someone could step in and make a rule that only red cars can drive in the left lane, and they can go ten miles an hour faster than the other lanes. That’s not fair. We need a new government agency to step in and make sure no one can set up these special red-car lanes. We need lane neutrality!”
Our roads are free and open now. If someone tried to set up special lanes, without making a case that the market agrees to, the market would naturally find better ways. Setting up a new agency wouldn’t improve things for us; it would, instead, give authority to some agency to determine how the lanes are used. And if you give that authority away, you place the choice on how the lanes will be used in the hands of that agency. You do the exact opposite of protect your free lane use.
There’s a further question about the public outcry for “net neutrality.” A look under the surface is likely to show that it’s the bigger companies, claiming they’re thinking of the little guy, while setting up regulations that will limit entry by new businesses—in other words, will limit their competition.
We have seen this before. I heard Milton Friedman say this in a speech in 1980:
[Businesses] aren’t promoting free enterprise when they ask for handouts and regulations and controls to avoid competition.
The two greatest enemies of free society are intellectuals and businessmen—for opposite reasons. Intellectuals want freedom for themselves but no one else. Businessmen want free enterprise for everyone else, but special consideration for themselves.
And, just an aside, is anyone else bothered that the president is pushing this proposal and then stepping back and saying, since the FCC is an independent agency (i.e., under the executive branch over which he presides), the decision of whether to interfere with our free and open Internet is already in their hands?
If we turn to the principles that lead to freedom, prosperity, and civilization, we can see where a policy will lead. Government must be limited to the proper role of government, as listed in the preamble to the Constitution:
· Establish Justice
· Insure domestic Tranquility
· Provide for the common defence
· Promote the general Welfare
· Secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity
There’s nothing in there that says, “When a new technology gets to a point that we all want it, the government should step in and make sure everyone gets it, and makes sure it gets offered in exactly the same quality to everyone, regardless of ability to pay.”
If people use the technology to harm one another, steal another’s property, or in any way endanger life, liberty, or property, then the justice role of government is already in place. If government does anything beyond its proper role, it will cause unintended consequences. Always.
But there’s something we can predict about those unintended consequences: they will be approximately the exact opposite of the purported purpose of the government interference.
So, in this case, we can agree we like having a free and open internet, and we want that to continue. If we have government step in with the claim that we can’t have a free and open internet without it, we can be certain the interference will mean less freedom, less openness, less innovation. There will likely be favoritism to particular businesses or points of view—control a tyrannical government would be especially gleeful to grab.