Saturday, January 8, 2011

"Net Neutrality" and Freedom of Speech in the Age of the Internet, Part Two

Hello all.  I trust everyone enjoyed their holiday(s) and ate enough fruitcake, pie and the usual fare to last them another year or longer, (in light of the still bleak economic picture, rising inflation and expected draconian increases in food prices from additional government regulation perhaps quite a bit longer).

I do apologize for my delay in getting back to blogging after the holidays, but I had an important project I needed to finish up, and am now ready to get back to regular blogging.

I also have some potentially great news regarding additional media exposure, main web site development (as opposed to this blog, still in the works), and additions to our leadership team, (more on this later).   For now, and as promised, in this (and following posts) I will continue to examine personal privacy in the digital age and the potentially dangerous threats to freedom of speech on the imminent horizon of our national experience in the wake of the "net neutrality" regulatory scheme just approved by the F.C.C. (among other things).

Before I begin however I would like to clarify something, (lest we receive mail from those who may be new to our work and misunderstand).

As an organization we are not always opposed to sensible government oversight.  Indeed, in matters where there is a legitimate and compelling public safety interest that overshadows other public policy considerations the American Center for Law and Policy realizes there is sometimes no substitute for reasonable regulation, (say, for example, in airline maintenance or prescription medications).

However, in line with our overarching goal of maximizing individual liberty and limiting the ever-increasing invasiveness of government over all our lives, in areas of society that do not seriously and directly impact public safety and welfare, (admittedly sometimes a difficult line to draw), we unabashedly support freedom of the individual over that of the interest of "government" just for government or regulations' sake.  It is this category that we feel control and/or regulation of the internet falls, for the most part, into.
With that clarification (and caveat if you will), back to the discussion at hand.

Many of the issues the F.C.C. has cited in support of the passage of the new "net neutrality" rules-- such as ISP's "throttling" of specific internet users deemed to use up too much network bandwidth caused by, say, downloading "excessive" software, videos, or the like-- are indeed real problems.

However, for those of us who believe in adhering to Free Enterprise principles for the solutions to such problems-- solutions that will at the same time preserve maximum freedom and all that is good with the internet-- passing an entirely new regulatory scheme to address the relatively minor problems that may exist is a lot like using a shotgun to kill the flies that get in the house in summertime.  (You might kill the fly you're aiming at, but you might do so at the expense of a new custom made "picture window" in the wall!)

Indeed, when it comes to problems such as throttling, equal access, and even issues such as internet obscenity, (and if you don't know what that means I will, for obvious reasons, refrain from coloring in the details for you), for those of us who are more concerned with preserving maximum freedom of expression and all that is good with a system that, for all its problems, is essentially the world's first and only truly open form of interactive communication in the history of man, we see far more insidious problems than those the F.C.C.'s proffered solution "solves."

Indeed, in what may truly be a case of the "cure" is worse than the disease, regulation of the internet as a "telephone company" was apparently done in seeming oblivion to much simpler solutions.

For instance, in a truly "free enterprise" system, ISP's wouldn't want to alienate a whole block of customers, say those who use large globs of bandwidth downloading whole series of television shows or movies, (legally of course), because if they did, those very same customers could (and likely would) move to a competing company offering better service.

The point?  The simple solution here, rather than regulating telephone and cable company internet providers so as to restrict their entry into the geographical "backyard" of their competitor, (as is still for the most part done with utility and telephone companies), would be to allow truly open competition among ISP's for the customers in the same geographical area.

Ideally, old geographical/ regulatory considerations would give way to those governed by the assets, willingness to risk investment, and physical infrastructure of the companies that wish to compete for customers in a given area, (a true "free enterprise" model in which consumers can only benefit by companies who, eager to steal away market share from their competitors, continually try to "outdo" each other by offering ever-better prices, quality, or selection of services).

In this kind of environment-- which, mind you, could be established without any need for freedom-limiting and innovation-stifling effects of regulation government intervention with its ever-accompanying risk of government taxation-- a company would always be afraid that, if their practices, (say on "throttling" bandwidth hogs disproportionately using their network), offended significant numbers of their customers, those customers might simply switch to another company which doesn't use such tactics, (or, better yet, even caters to the particular needs of such customers for a premium which they might gladly be willing to pay if they could be assured the level of service they desired would be provided).

In this way, then, you can see that an open and unregulated system could easily provide an efficient solution to the problem of throttling without the all the negative and "collateral damage" that additional government regulation often encompasses, (and so it is with most, if not all of the various perceived "problems" with the internet, or really most any endeavor in society).

The problem is that nowhere in the "telecommunications industry," (which the government has just now assured the internet is forever tied to), is such a truly "free enterprise" economic system allowed to exist where companies are allowed to compete in the same geographical areas, (at least not under the "telephone company" paradigm now approved).

And unfortunately, as is the nature of such things, instead of embracing change towards just such a "new" and truly "open" system that might actually allow the free enterprise system a chance to provide solutions to such "problems," government is often slow to realize the benefits of such changes and move from the status quo of what has "worked" in the past, (even it is really didn't or is no longer able to in the light of technological advances).

Of course, free enterprise solutions are not exactly "new" to our great country; indeed, they are the driving force behind the unparalleled innovation, standard of living and myriads of choices Americans have enjoyed for years in a multitude of industries, (from food brands to automobiles), but just because a good solution may appear obvious doesn't mean that government doesn't often miss the forest for the trees, (and the internet is no exception).

It is our job as citizens, with the power of the ballot box and the very freedom of speech we sometimes take for granted, to remind them of this fact.    jp

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