Commentary
11/9/2010
12:56 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
Commentary

Global CIO: 'Net Neutrality' A Ballot Bomb: Supporters Shellacked At Polls

In last week's elections, all 95 Congressional candidates who had promised to support 'net neutrality' initiatives were defeated. Are we getting the picture here?



They might not have known it, but into the valley of electoral death rode the 95 Congressional hopefuls who had publicly vowed to support greater government regulation of the Internet.

As Wall Street Journal columnist L. Gordon Crovitz writes on his Monday column, the advocacy group that crafted the "pledge" signed by the 95 candidates attempted a real whopper of post-election denial by saying that "regulation of the Internet wasn't a big issue in the election."

But Crovitz goes on to shred that silly bit of dishonesty by getting to the heart of why so many people—inside and outside the tech business, and inside and outside the Beltway—feel the sugary-named 'net neutrality' position is nothing more than a blatant power grab that would take away more decision-making power and flexibility from businesses and turn it over to politicians and regulators.

"The broader lesson," writes Crovitz, "may be that people fear government regulation of what has been a free and open Internet more than they fear what any other institution might do to the Web. This is a good time to reset the argument about how to ensure that the Internet remains a lively place for users and innovators."

"Net neutrality"—sounds precious and sweet, doesn't it? Dude, I mean, really, it's just, like, is it so hard to grasp the concept that all packets are created equal? And it's only when Big Corporate gets involved that some packets get totally discriminated against? And why should some suit get to decide that one packet is less neutral than my packet?

The sleight-of-hand routine that the supporters of this nonsense is revealed if we just think about other similar models—e.g., airlines. Everybody has the right to fly, but some choose to fly during peak times and sit in the biggest seats and receive complementary champagne—and they pay dearly for those privileges.

Others choose flights based on low prices, and the airlines are all too happy to accommodate them as well. Neither approach is any more or less "equal" or "neutral" than the other—it's all a matter of customer choice, business strategy, and free-market dynamics at work.

As my colleague Rob Preston put it a few years back in one of his excellent columns, "Just as HOV lanes relieve overall congestion on our nation's highways, so, too, can these premium pipes improve overall service. Drawing a commercial parallel, is FedEx's ability to deliver documents and packages quickly and efficiently "unfair" to companies and consumers who can afford to use only snail mail? It's only a problem if the conventional service degrades as service is improved elsewhere--and there's no reason to assume that will happen on the Internet."

But the supporters of "net neutrality" try to frame it very differently by invoking emotional terms like "censorship" and "fairness" and casting as villains the businesses that merely want to apply the same free-market principles to their use of the Internet as they do to their use of any other means of public transport or commerce. Here's how Crovitz describes it:

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"Over the past decade, lobbyists have tried to argue that more government control over the Web would somehow result in more freedom. Many in the high-tech world originally supported this view, perhaps because 'net neutrality' sounds like the side of the angels. But as other industries have learned, the relationship between regulation and freedom is inverse, not direct. There's not much wrong with the Internet now, but there's a big risk in giving regulators more control of an industry in which even the gurus have little idea what innovations will come next."

But Crovitz really nails the core problem with this perversion of the concept of neutrality when he discusses the decided non-neutral tradeoffs it would trigger:

"In the name of neutrality, lobbyists want to stop Internet providers from managing their networks by charging more to providers or users of bandwidth-hogging services such as video and online games," he writes. "This amounts to a forced subsidy of certain users of the Web at the expense of others. As demands on the Web escalate, speed and reliability will inevitably depend on more management of the network, including through different prices for different levels of service."

While I urge you to read Crovitz's entire piece, let me offer one other excerpt from his analysis of unintended and ugly consequences that could follow if we as a society allow this phony 'neutrality' issue to fall into the hands of politicians and regulators instead of leaving it unregulated for entrepreneurs to exploit in a free society powered by a free economy.

"For example, Apple offers applications designed specifically for its iPad tablet. Amazon's Kindle has a special deal with Sprint that allows for lightning-fast downloads of books. The closed community of Facebook regulates how people link to one another. Do we really want regulators in the name of neutrality determining which apps should be available on the iPad? How fair it is that Kindle has fast book downloads? Should the FCC decide how many Facebook friends are too many? It's not even clear what 'net neutrality' means in the context of these services."

But one thing about this whole mushy mess is unmistakably clear, and as Crovitz chronicles, that clarity emerged in a tightly linked 3-step process:

1) Last month, 95 candidates for Congress signed a pledge that included this promise: "In Congress, I'll fight to protect Net Neutrality for the entire Internet—wired and wireless—and make sure big corporations aren't allowed to take control of free speech online."

2) Last week, those same 95 neutrality-supporting Congressional candidates ran for office.

3) And later last week, all 95 lost.

Score it this way: Free-market common sense 95, and net-neutrality nonsense 0.

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GlobalCIO Bob Evans is senior VP and director of InformationWeek's Global CIO unit.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page.

For more Global CIO perspectives, check out Global CIO,
or write to Bob at [email protected].

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