December 05, 2010

Some Thoughts on Net Neutrality

First, please read these:
Denver Post: Battle for America's TVs
Lubbock Online: Streaming Video May Compromise Internet Capacity
CNet: Level 3 Claims Comcast is "Strong-arming" them

I first encountered this weird idea of "net neutrality" a couple of years ago in this video: "Hot Girl and Crew Spreading Net Neutrality Message". Like any heterosexual man I do enjoy watching "hot girls" romping on beaches or hiking mountain trails, but they are not generally my first media of choice for political debate or scholastic research. "Hot" and "profound" don't generally coincide, although there are a few very rare exceptions. Somebody had recommended the video to me so I watched it and almost immediately forgot about it. After all, it was vague, lacked any kind of facts, and was clearly intended to play on the emotions of its viewers in order to advance a political agenda of some kind.

For the life of me I could not figure out why the FCC would ever want to get involved in internet regulation. What possible need could there be for the United States federal government to concern itself with World of Warcraft, YouTube, Yahoo and Google? None whatsoever. Therefore, it seemed to me to be a very simple proposition: the FCC should be told to take a hike and keep their grubby little paws off the internet. After all, the FBI and Interpol are already doing a fine job of hunting down and collapsing child predator networks while every intelligence agency in the world monitors terrorists. In a very real sense, keeping the criminals online and active is a good thing because it makes it much easier for law enforcement to monitor their communications, gather evidence, and get convictions. It is the lack of regulation that is helping law enforcement do their job. To my mind, that is a good thing.

Today I finally learned what the real issue is. I suppose I should have assumed as much from the beginning, but I hadn't realized how powerful some internet service providers had become. Apparently, the real issue is who is going to collect the fees for maintaining and expanding the hardware and software that keep the internet up and running. Already we are seeing the formation of commercial monopolies that have captured regional markets. Instead of investing in new technologies some of them are using their financial resources to push through legislation which they can use to force competitors out of business.

Now that is a problem. This kind of idiocy is how we wound up with plastic car bumpers and failure-prone smoke detectors. I am not really an old man just yet, but I am no longer young. Over the past three decades of adulthood I have watched stupid ideas with no commercial value whatsoever get forced down our throats by people who use emotional appeals and fearmongering to convince society that their pretty little technomarvel is just the thing to bring about utopia. Their logic seems to be if we as consumers are unwilling to believe their hype then by golly the government ought to force us to make them rich.

Enough is enough. If your idea won't sell, or if your competitor won't let you into their market, that's just how the cookie crumbles. Go back to the drawing board and come up with a better idea, one that will give the competition's customers every reason in the world to give you their money instead of the big guy who's been around longer and already has an efficient operation in place. Instead of expanding the scope and reach of government we need to start trimming back this leviathan. It is time to force the beast back into its cage and lock it down once and for all.

Level 3 needs to renegotiate their contract with Comcast in the quiet boardrooms of the two companies and keep their business out of the public sphere. If Level 3 doesn't like the deal Comcast is offering, then they need to trim their costs, expand their own infrastructure, and give consumers a real reason to shift their spending away from Comcast. Don't go crying to the government just because you don't like the competition. The world of business is not a schoolyard, Comcast is not a playground bully. Give consumers a better deal and you'll fix the problem. If Comcast's customers don't like the service they receive or the prices Comcast charges, then offer them something better! If you are dependent on Comcast to carry your product to the end user, then you have to pay the fees Comcast charges. It does not matter if those fees are specifically designed to make your product less attractive than their inhouse product. In professional circles people call that kind of scheme "a good business plan" and that is exactly what it is. If you don't like it, come up with a better plan and then steal their customers away by offering a better value.

Remember Prodigy? Remember Compuserve? Remember AOL? The internet is a business and like any business, some companies will succeed, some will fail, new companies will come along, old companies will vanish. The beauty of the business world is that as long as the government does not get involved, it truly is self-regulating. Consumers, the people, make their buying decisions for their own reasons. Businesses that anticipate those reasons and meet the needs of consumers will rise, business that fail to anticipate those reasons or fail to meet the needs of consumers will fall. If you're one of the failures, then yes, it hurts deep and it feels personal, but it's not. Being a lifelong failure myself I empathize deeply, but that does not mean the government needs to step in every time some company misses a beat and vanishes from the landscape.

We don't need the FCC or anyone else to regulate the internet. I already have to put up with smoke detectors going off for no reason, plastic bumpers that scratch and tear every time I look at them funny, and government inspectors that can walk onto my land without a warrant to check my house, check my septic, check my plumbing, check my electric, check my gas lines, and then order me to spend money fixing things that aren't even broken. We don't need more government in the internet or anywhere else. We need the government to go back to doing what it does best: provide for the common defense, preserve interstate commerce, and negotiate peace treaties with stupidly aggressive nations. Rather than FCC bureaucrats determining which companies rise and fall, we need someone with the courage to blast Pyongyang and Tehran back into the stone age before they start throwing around nuclear warheads. The federal government of the United States needs to spend less time worrying about the free citizens of this great nation and more time worrying about the enemies of free enterprise and free thinking. Comcast is not the enemy, neither is Level 3. Netflix might stress the internet, but that will only inspire someone to come up with a better, faster internet than the one we already have. Hopefully they'll make a fortune doing it.

The enemy of the modern world is Marxism and religious fascism. Our enemies are fanatics of any stripe or color who believe that their personal values are the key to bringing utopia and the willingness to kill or maim anyone who has a different vision. Drug cartels, child porn networks, terrorists, violent activists, and petty criminals are the only enemies the government needs to concern itself with. It is not the government's job to relieve poverty, cure climate change, and make sure my house doesn't burn down in my sleep. Those are value-based choices that each of make as individuals. We make the choices. Whether we live or die based on the consequences of those choices is not the responsibility of government. It is the sole responsibility of the person who makes the choice. It only becomes the government's responsibility when that choice violates someone else's freedom, or brings about someone else's death through clear neglect or outright sadism. Mistakes will be made, naturally, and some of those mistakes will be fatal, but that is not the realm of government control either.

There is no utopia this side of heaven. Bigger, more powerful governments with the freedom to dictate every detail of our lives will not bring us happiness. Did Mao bring happiness to the Chinese people? Did Hitler bring happiness to Germany? Did Stalin bring happiness to Russia and the countries controlled by the former Soviet Union? Have the Ayatollahs brought happiness to Iran? How many North Korean citizens are happy?

People are only happy when they have the freedom to prosper. In order to have the freedom to prosper, they must also have the freedom to fail. The greater the safety net the government provides, the lower the potential ceiling a person can aspire to. If the FCC gets involved in regulating internet content then I can guarantee you the results will be the opposite of what net neutrality's supporters are promising. It's the nature of the beast. Government regulations don't bring freedom, they can only inhibit freedom. Every time you inhibit freedom, you also inhibit diversity and free discourse. The surest way to bring about the dystopian internet the proponents of net neutrality are predicting is to get the FCC involved in regulating internet traffic flow. The cyberspace landscape they are seeing is indeed a potential nightmare and if we pursue a government-imposed net neutrality that is exactly where we will find ourselves.