Net Neutrality: Treating the Internet Like a Utility (Updated)

According to a story on PJM by Charlie Martin, in 2004 Comcast and some of the other big providers started looking at what data was being sent, and decided to start throttling down how much data of certain types -- most notably streaming audio and video -- people could receive. This tended to irritate people who watch their favorite shows on Hulu or movies on Netflix (I happen to be one of the people who prefers his shows this way). Thus, the push for net neutrality began.

On its face, the idea of net neutrality seems like a good one: internet service providers, such as Comcast, should move all data equally regardless of its source or type. ISPs aren't allowed to look at what's in a data packet; they just have to move it to whoever requested it. This would also prevent networks from blocking voice-over IP services like Skype, or favoring their own data over that from rival networks.

So far, so good -- and if this was what was actually going to happen, it would be fine.

The problem commences with who gets to regulate the Internet. The usual suspects in Washington, from Henry Waxman (D-CA) to Federal Communications Commission Chair Julius Genachowski, are pushing for rules which would take things in a radically different direction. Recall the "Fairness Doctrine" in radio was an FCC regulation -- not a law. What's currently being pushed as "net neutrality" is in many ways simply a fairness doctrine for the Internet.

As Charlie Martin points out:

The push for net neutrality, however, was quickly picked up by other people for other political purposes, starting with the idea that “net neutrality” meant that everyone ought to have equal access to Internet service, whether they live in the borough of Manhattan, or Manhattan, Kansas, or in a cabin twelve miles by road from the nearest human habitation. This quickly picked up other ideas: that “net neutrality” meant different ethnic groups have equal access -- which would mean the government looking not just at the content of the messages, but the race of the person on the wire; or that different viewpoints ought to have equal access to the Internet -- so, potentially, Fox News would be limited based on how much bandwidth the Huffington Post consumed; and even that “hate speech” and “lies” could be regulated.

This is what we might call net neutrality of the second kind: not content neutral, but instead, content “fairness.”

No one entity has rule-making authority for the Internet. The FCC can not and does not regulate its content.

And therein lies the rub: the FCC, like most bureaucratic organizations, and Genachowski, like most bureaucrats, tend toward empire building. With a regulatory agency like the FCC, this means that when they see something which currently is unregulated and for which they could make a reasonable argument that it falls in their bailiwick, they are going to try to get control of it. When that agency is also very much a political agency, the implications become more troubling still -- regardless of which party is in power.