First of all, my compliments to Ms. Givens for her attempt at clarifying for the average consumer the issue of net neutrality. Ms. Givens is correct that the Federal Communications Commission wants to put into rule a number of guiding principles that will help the agency determine whether the sentinels of the internet’s onramps are treating everyone equally and fairly when regulating the traffic consumers and producers send up and down our nation’s digital thoroughfares. While I appreciate Ms. Givens’ acknowledgment that we should seek some balance in resolving the issue surrounding an open internet, it is at this fork in the road that Ms. Givens and I must, at least temporarily, part company.
The problems with her argument, ones that are shared by the more ardent proponents of net neutrality, are the generalities used to describe the problem this public policy is supposed to solve, and the tenuous linkages that are used to tie the problems of lack of access with a poor and unneeded public policy solution.
Let’s look at the concept of “policy” itself. If we are talking social policy, then we are referring to a goal that society overall finds agreeable if not noble. When determining the appropriate public policy or government action necessary to bring about this goal, we first ask ourselves whether the participants in the market for internet services, namely consumers and internet access providers need any government help to begin with. My position is no, they do not.
We can all agree that consumers should be able to access the internet because of the well documented existing and future benefits access has to offer. We can also agree that in a free market society where the private sector provides the distribution piece of the information superhighway, we should maintain a system of incentives, i.e. market-based prices, low taxes, etc., that encourages the private sector to manage, monitor, and maintain facilities. Net neutrality proponents at this point will argue the generality that Ms. Givens argues; that “everyone, regardless of wealth, power, or influence, should have the same access to the Internet.“ That generality, without going into an in-depth analytical treatment, is not economically or financially feasible.
For example, I expect to have access to medical facilities; however, depending on my particular mix of economic resources, I will only be able to afford certain levels of actual health care. Economic constraints as determined by the provider will be factored into what the facility will be able to provide me. Part of the provider’s decision to meet my particular need will be based on my ability to pay; the other part based on the expenses they have to cover to remain viable. Based on this time-honored perspective of a private sector provider, to say that everyone will have the same access is not realistic.
In short, the first question any policy maker should ask is, does the market currently allow consumers who are willing and able to pay for internet access to get that access? The answer is yes. Anyone with a phone line (which is well over 95% of the country) can get digital subscriber line service and be on the internet in a jiffy.
The second question the policy maker must ask is, how will a requirement that internet service providers make available to consumers traffic management and network information increase either the level of internet services to the consumer or reduce the consumer’s price for service? In other words, how will transparency increase consumer welfare?
This question is never answered clearly by net neutrality proponents. Instead, it is at this juncture that net neutrality proponents do a hard left turn and link net neutrality to some circular argument like, “we need net neutrality because we need transparency because we need robustness.“ Not once have net neutrality proponents made a quantitative case for either an increase in services or a decrease in consumer prices. Here also, Ms. Givens’ description of net neutrality and her support of the policy fails.
Ms. Givens never answers her question, net neutrality: bad or good public policy. I’ll answer it. It is bad policy.