Make the Internet Great Again

Donald Trump will become President Trump in less than one week. For some, that’s a terrifying reality. For others, that’s a cause for celebration. For all, however, that means radical change is on the horizon.

Now, what will change? Who knows—like all politicians, Trump (likely) made more promises than he can keep. His 100-day agenda, for example, is devoid of several policies that he championed during his campaign such as the wall and the Muslim ban. But, based on Trump’s FCC landing team (and 2014 tweet), at least one thing seems certain: Net neutrality will be on the chopping block.

And that’s fantastic news.

“Net neutrality” is a term coined by Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor. Basically, it means that “no bit of information should be prioritized over another.” Here’s an illustration. Imagine two companies, Netstream and DeuceTV. Both provide entertainment to their customers over the Internet. Netstream is affiliated with an internet service provider. DeuceTV isn’t. Net neutrality prevents the internet service provider from (1) speeding up the delivery of Netstream’s content, (2) slowing down the delivery of DeuceTV’s content, and (3) blocking DeuceTV’s content altogether.

Few regulations are as divisive as net neutrality. (That’s why it took the FCC until 2015, nine years after its first attempt, to get it passed.) Those is favor, although they purport to be interested in preserving competition, argue on fairness grounds; they claim that network neutrality is “the mother of innovation.” Those in opposition argue that the government should mind its beeswax; that network neutrality is “a solution that won’t work to a problem that doesn’t exist .” Here are four brief (non-political and unoriginal) reasons why those in opposition are right.

First, the problem that net neutrality purportedly solves is fiction. The FCC has never cited evidence of widespread anticompetitive behavior by internet service providers. All the FCC points to are a few isolated examples such as Comcast with BitTorrent and Madison River with VoIP. Without evidence of widespread anticompetitive behavior, regulation is inapt: as Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has remarked, regulation is meant simply to “restrict[] an individual or firm from doing what it otherwise would have done.”

Second, the problem that net neutrality purportedly solves is unlikely to ever be anything but fiction. The market (virtually) ensures that. As Gary Becker, another Nobel Prize-winning economist, and others have explained, “attempts by a broadband access provider to limit access to Internet content would likely result in the loss of subscribers that prefer unrestricted access, which, in turn, provides a competitive constraint that limits incentives for such actions.”

Third, even if the problem that net neutrality purportedly solves was actual (or was to become actual), better options than regulation exist to preserve competition. Relying on preexisting antitrust enforcement is one example, because “[a]nalysis of . . . competition is a common focus of antitrust analysis. . . and antitrust enforcement provides a mechanism for addressing competitive concerns of the type raised by net neutrality proponents.” Two other options include (1) “increased industry self-regulation, technical collaboration, and alternative dispute resolution” and (2) “greater reliance on community policing and expert third-party oversight mechanisms.”

Finally, net neutrality has already hurt far more than it’s helped. And that’s fact, not fiction. Investment by small and large internet service providers, for example, is down. In fact, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai revealed in February 2016 that “[t]his is the first time that year-over-year investment in broadband has gone down, outside the tech bubble bursting in 2001 and the Great Recession of 2008.” This is because (1) small internet service providers can’t expand because they can’t comply with net neutrality requirements and (2) large internet service providers have less incentive to build broadband networks.

So while it’s true that the next four to eight years under President Trump may be unpleasant, killing net neutrality would guarantee that he goes down in history having made at least one smart decision while in office.

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