High-tech giant Google, locking arms with MoveOn.org and a host of high-tech lobbyists, is pressing Congress to pass "net neutrality" mandates purportedly needed to protect the open nature of the Internet, where all consumers, content providers, and application providers can interact.
In reality, there is nothing neutral about this effort. It is a clear push to grant the federal government sweeping new controls over the Internet while providing big content companies like Google access to broadband providers are regulated rates. Proponents claim greater federal control over the Internet would prevent big broadband providers from blocking content on the web and turning it into a walled garden freely accessible only to those with the money. Yet there have been very few instances where broadband providers have engaged in anticompetitive practices and these violations were handled easily by the FCC under existing law without requiring a new heavy-handed regulatory regime.
The lightly regulated Internet is already a place where people freely exchange ideas and commerce moves at nearly the speed of light. It is precisely the ever-present market forces that have lowered prices, promoted access, and boosted innovation. Restricting the type of service and content that can be provided by broadband service providers closes off a dimension of competition — pricing flexibility by broadband companies.
Without this flexibility, very little separates one provider from another in the market, leading to a natural advantage for larger companies. The end result would be less choice and higher prices for consumers. With fewer dimensions by which broadband providers can compete, smaller companies would lose their comparative advantage in the market, precipitating a concentration of ownership of the broadband providers. What Washington should really be promoting is net diversity — allowing providers to experiment and provide services that meet a wide array of demands, from telemedicine and online video gaming, to video programming and email. Such policies would encourage investment in the broadband infrastructure, inviting in more competition while keeping prices in check.
Big Internet companies like Google and Amazon.com are lobbying government to regulate the Internet in a manner that will make the natural evolution of the physical architecture of the Internet unfeasible and stifle competition that benefits consumers and widens access. Today’s Internet is already feeling its age, and new bandwidth intensive applications and content will only make current shortcomings more apparent. Quality of service will become a much more important issue, and require important investments in the broadband infrastructure itself, not merely the applications and content provided at the edge of the Internet.
Rather than address such concerns, net neutrality mandates would ensure that the Internet operates in the same way for the rest of its existence, regardless of whether engineers and scientists find another approach that works better for consumers. The best way to alleviate any concerns about anticompetitive behavior or concerns about blocked web sites would be to allow more competitors and new choices in the broadband market. Congress should auction off unused and inefficiently allocated wireless spectrum to broadband companies seeking to establish a wireless Internet backbone.
Congress can also eliminate the morass of local franchise laws that hinder competition and prevent entry into the market. A national video franchise is already in the works, and has garnered support on both sides of the aisle. Addressing such concerns will do far more to expand access and encourage investments in the next generation of the Internet.
The bill introduced by Rep. Joe Barton in the U.S. House recognizes the importance of opening the broadband market to new forms of competition. This important vision of a state-of-the-art Internet that expands access should not be bridled with new mandates to protect favored users of the Internet at the expense of consumers in general.