Net Neutrality Has Been Hijacked: How It Will Affect Consumer Free Speech

Why does the federal government suddenly care about net neutrality?

Net neutrality – the idea that “no providers of legal Internet content should face discrimination in providing offerings to consumers, and that users should have equal access to see any legal content they choose” – has, up until now, been upheld by the architects, entrepreneurs, and pioneers of the Internet, and they have largely succeeded in preserving an environment where equal access and free speech reign supreme.

As it currently stands, Internet service providers (ISPs) and other companies interact with each other in a largely unregulated free market. People and organizations are free to voice their political views. Consumers have more freedom than ever to speak out against products and services that fail to satisfy them.

Then along comes the federal government, in the form of the Obama Administration and the Federal Communications Commission, claiming the Internet is being oppressed by ISPs and that net neutrality itself is being threatened. No one has actually complained about this, except for the Netflixes of the world. Other companies and the public at large were not crying out for the Internet to be liberated – it was already free. So why is the president and the FCC in such a rush to create new rules that somehow makes the Internet more free?

Because an opportunity to increase the federal government’s power on the Internet presented itself in the form of a 2014 federal court ruling which left a gaping loophole – that the FCC could regulate an Internet company if it was classified as a “common carrier.”

In other words, the federal government has hijacked the concept of net neutrality so they can finally have the power to regulate the Internet, and this should concern everyone – not just ISPs. Where the federal government meddles, favoritism, inefficiency, and out-of-control spending follow, and once-free markets go haywire (I’m looking at you, healthcare and airline industries).

Most alarming of all is the effect federal power over the Internet could have on free speech itself.

A Good Thing… At First

If the president and the FCC get their way, in the immediate term, this will all appear to be a big win for everyone except ISPs. It will force Comcast to not charge Netflix for increased bandwidth. Netflix, in turn, won’t have to drive their prices up. Subscribers will be glad their monthly subscription fees aren’t going up. Then Netflix will go around and say, “Look, Comcast can’t abuse their powers with us.”

But we can’t ignore that a fundamental right of the free market will have been violated. Regardless of how you feel about Comcast (I’m not a fan) they own the cable that they send Internet through. They’ve invested millions into providing Internet access in even the most far-flung areas of the country. To remain competitive, they’ve also made their networks very fast. And this has actually benefited Netflix and other streaming services.

Robert McMillan at Wired.com commented on this in his article “What Everyone Gets Wrong in the Debate Over Net Neutrality“:

“Today, privileged companies – including Google, Facebook, and Netflix – already benefit from what are essentially internet fast lanes, and this has been the case for years. Such web giants – and others – now have direct connections to big ISPs like Comcast and Verizon, and they run dedicated computer servers deep inside these ISPs. In technical lingo, these are known as ‘peering connections’ and ‘content delivery servers’, and they’re a vital part of the way the internet works.”

As the owner of these networks, ISPs have already accommodated Netflix and other companies like them. This gives them the right to charge Netflix more, if they want. Does this make Comcast the big jerk of the market? Probably. Is it best for our economy to let such deals play out? Absolutely.

But the federal government isn’t telling that story. Instead, they’re spinning a David-and-Goliath yarn about poor little Amazon and Netflix taking on the big, bad Comcast and someone has to step in to help. Unfortunately, this loss for the free market will look like a win for the “little guy.” That is, until the federal government’s true motives are revealed.

Why Washington Even Cares

In President Obama’s November 2011 statement on net neutrality, he proclaimed:

“We cannot allow Internet service providers to restrict the best access or pick the winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas.”

This statement captures the true hypocrisy of the federal government’s motives in regards to net neutrality.

Political free speech is the only place where the government has to win here. Why else would they care suddenly about protecting net neutrality? Yes, there are lobbyists in Washington who are persuading Republicans and Democrats down this road on behalf of Netflix and Amazon. Yes, Hollywood is pushing for it because they want to control what movies you’re watching and how much you’re paying for them. Ultimately, however, the White House and the FCC don’t care about Netflix. They don’t care about Hollywood.

What makes this all worth their time is the control it would grant them over political free speech on the Internet.

The First Casualty

The Internet might be the last free medium for broadcasting, but it wasn’t the first. Television, and radio used to be free, too. That is, until the Fairness Doctrine happened. Forbes contributor Frank Miniter describes what transpired:

“[The Fairness Doctrine] allowed the FCC to fine radio and TV stations, or even to revoke their licenses, if it didn’t think broadcasts were fair and balanced or if the station aired profanity, hate speech or other offenses; as a result, many radio stations… simply stayed out of politics.”

This should be a warning of what’s to come if the federal government gains regulatory power over the Internet. Detractors of the White House or the federal government, those with large audiences and significant influence, would be regulated first. For example, the Obama Administration would have the power to pressure and even shut down Rush Limbaugh’s blog or online broadcasts. They would go after the Rush Limbaughs of the world, and you and I would be scared out of our minds to say anything negative about anybody the federal government didn’t want us to say negative things about.

Miniter explained it this way:

“These regulations that supposedly will keep the Internet open and fair can next be grown into a governing authority over Internet content, as once happened in radio… To ensure ‘fairness’, the FCC would have to create and enforce guidelines that would affect search results and Internet access. This would inevitably affect speech.”

As bad as controlling and stifling political free speech is, the effects of such action by the federal government wouldn’t stop with politics.

Do As I Do

To a great degree, what Washington does to political free speech online would set the precedent and the example for corporations to follow. The corporate world would most certainly catch on to it. The brand management world would catch on to it. And the very next step is that they begin using that same precedent to silence consumer free speech.
An example which is sadly all too plausible is that an airline gets fed up with unfavorable user reviews. Instead of fixing the internal problems causing the negative reviews, the airline lobbies with the government to have tighter restrictions placed on consumer reviews. Or they sue to have review sites taken down.

The repercussions of such quelling by companies are staggering. We’re not talking about just unhappy customers. We’re talking about giving companies the ability to tear out the feedback loop that they might not like, but which is absolutely essential to their continued progress and the health of the economy at large. We’re talking about stamping out that free speech which is every consumer’s right.

Don’t Fall For It

Keeping your Netflix subscription fee low and dealing a blow to Comcast might sound good, but it behooves everyone to consider the true motives behind and implications of the federal government’s new net neutrality rules. Under the guise of preserving net neutrality, the FCC and the Obama Administration are making a move that will strangle free speech in the one place still untouched by government regulation. Whether to please lobbyists (somewhat likely), to gain points with voters (very likely), or to expand federal control (100% likely), their motivations are highly suspect. Don’t fall for it.

Free market capitalist. Champion of small government. Fascinated by free market principles that are solutions to big problems. In my professional life, I am the VP of Marketing at Skyrocket Media.  Visit Chase's website

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