Debunking the Myths of Net 'Neutrality'

The meteoric rise of Internet services is probably the greatest testament to private-sector ingenuity in world history. In less than 10 years, it has revolutionized our business and personal lives — all without government direction or a federal Department of the Internet.

So why are a hodge-podge of consumer activists and a few large online corporations in an unholy alliance to dramatically expand federal power over the Internet?

The issue involves having the federal government regulate the speed at which data is carried over public and private Internet networks. The feds would then make Internet providers legally liable if some data crossed its networks faster than other data. (Does America really need more reasons for people to file lawsuits?!)

The online phrase for this is net neutrality and it’s meant to prohibit non-existent "discrimination" on the Internet. The common sense phrase is "Net nuttiness" because having the federal government regulate Internet speeds is one of the worst ideas imaginable for a growing, constantly changing system that’s crucial to America’s economic growth.

As is usual in lobbying campaigns, proponents of neutrality regulations are spreading favorite myths about the need for government action. Here are a few, as well as some inconvenient facts that proponents would probably like you to ignore:

Myth 1: Internet providers are blocking consumers’ access to their preferred websites.

Wrong. Those pushing federal neutrality regulations can cite only two examples where an Internet provider blocked consumer access to a legal website. Both happened in Canada!

The only example in the U.S. that even approaches discrimination involved a small Internet provider in North Carolina that didn’t process telephone calls fast enough. Word quickly leaked and caused a nationwide uproar, including fast action by the Federal Communications Commission. Within hours, the provider backed down. No one has tried this since.

Myth 2: Well, then providers have said they’ll start discriminating.

No they haven’t. In fact, they’ve said exactly the opposite because they understand that one of the quickest ways to drive away customers is to take away their legal rights to do what they want online. Moreover, most major U.S. providers of Internet access have signed on to FCC principles that specifically bar discrimination.

Another point that the neutrality regulation crowd conveniently ignores is that since 1996, Internet providers have had the legal right to take down websites without liability (Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act). Yet providers have not abused this right. Perhaps mindful of their public image, they’ve been remarkably restrained.

Myth 3: Net neutrality regulations won’t cost consumers anything.

Among many absurd myths, this is probably the worst. Companies are spending tens of billions of dollars to deploy next-generation networks.

Federal "neutrality" regulations would undercut virtually all types of commercial arrangements between Internet access providers and online companies. With this major source of revenue dried up, providers would have only one place to turn: Consumers.

It would be a sad day when federal regulations wind up shifting financial burdens from Google and Yahoo to ordinary net users. (Thanks for nothing, MoveOn!)

Myth 4: Consumers have no protection if providers start to discriminate.

There are already several legal recourses available if Internet companies implement discriminatory policies. These include laws against tortuous interference and conspiracy. Even RICO laws would probably be brought in, since a victor would see any financial awards tripled. That would be an irresistible lure for many plaintiffs and scary thought for the Internet provider.

Myth 5: Neutrality regulations are cheap and easily accomplished.

The mass of networks that make up "the Internet" is the most complex man-made system in the nation. Moreover, with constantly changing technologies, it’s only getting more complicated. The idea that federal bureaucrats will regulate such a cutting-edge medium with a "light touch" is about as credible saying that a pile-driver would be a useful tool to plant peonies.

Still not convinced? Then consider just a few of the Internet technologies that the Feds would have to define and regulate to create "neutrality": caching, collocation, packet disassembly and assembly, settlement-free interconnection, Network access points, Internet protocol systems. You get the idea.

In sum, neutrality regulations would be a breathtaking expansion of federal government power over the Internet — and for no good reason. Legislating out of fear will not achieve the next generation of Internet service, and is likely to have serious unintended consequences.