Yesterday, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) held a Senate hearing on his proposed bill, the Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act of 2014. The bill, reading at just four pages, serves as a tool to combat “paid prioritization” in the network traffic business in an effort to maintain open competition in that market. This idea, known as net neutrality, as explained by Joe Carter, assumes “that a public information network should aspire to treat all content, sites, and platforms equally” as well as equal treatment in “giving users the bandwidth to reach the internet-connected services they prefer.” All of this has come under threat, as a DC Circuit Court struck down the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) power to regulate net neutrality on January 14 of this year.
Under proposed FCC rules poised to take effect this November, internet providers, like Comcast, would be able to charge tolls to broadband users, like Google, for speedier service to its site, with the ultimate cost burden being shifted upon consumers. The Christian Post explains how the new policy will impact faith based groups. Without net neutrality, service providers could censor the voices of religious advocacy groups, or anyone else unable to pay a premium, effectively violating the First Amendment and “stifl[ing] free speech rights.”
Since the FCC’s rollout of new regulations, Senator Leahy has mounted the “No Tollbooths For The Internet” campaign. Opponents of the bill argue that although traditional tolls are burdensome to drivers, they are essential in maintaining and repairing road systems for a better commute. Similarly, it is argued that internet tolls would be charged to companies to reach internet users in return for a superior service.
However, critics of Leahy’s proposal contend that it could inhibit investment in a faster delivery system for digital content. Additional costs can translate as an investment in the future of speedier content. As it stands, there is little incentive for a service provider to invest alone in such technology, but a partnership with broadband users makes this more likely.
Columbia law professor Tim Wu coined the term net neutrality and has kept to the transportation theme in a recent New Yorker piece, writing a rebuttal to opponents of net neutrality regulation:
It may be one thing for the rich to drive better cars; it would be another to divide public roads between rich and poor, ostensibly to avoid “congestion.” The prospect that the F.C.C. might allow a “fast lane” for some traffic, leaving everyone else in a slower lane, has ignited the argument that private inequality must have its limits, and that some public spaces must remain open to all.
But is the internet a “public space” in the sense that it commands the same status as a public good? The further prompts the question whether it is an essential good to be accessed by all and at the same rate, as Wu later asserts that the internet is “almost as necessary [as electricity] to contemporary life.”
A lot of things come into play with the internet — one must first purchase a computer or device and pay for all the costs and fees associated with the product. This negates many Americans from the equation. One must first have a product to utilize the service of the internet, just as one must have a car to use a toll road. Designating a service as essential opens up the issue of whether the product necessary to use it is also an essential good. Companies could still provide their site to internet users at a slower and cheaper rate, just as drivers could forgo a toll to save a buck in exchange for a longer detour. Either way, both get to the same destination.
By contrast, Leahy’s bill aims to prevent discriminatory practices in the internet industry as an instrument to support competition among firms “based on their merit and content, not on a financial relationship with a service provider.” Dylan Pahman describes how net neutrality had ensured this until it was struck down in January:
Whoever is responsible for and best at enforcing it, net neutrality had this going for it: it was a relatively stable, relatively open playing-field for competition…. [T]he fact that companies tried to get around it via copyright protection privileges shows that it was, in fact, doing something to enforce freedom of competition. Now, without it, there is an opportunity for concentration of power … [which] can lead to instability, and instability leads to popular calls for state regulation, which tend in practice toward cronyism. Certainly, such a trajectory is not inevitable, but it is now more likely, giving good reason for pause at the idea that we do not need net neutrality — or something like it — in the future.
Though consumers may benefit from faster service, eliminating net neutrality is also something that would curtail innovation and inhibit new competition from startups that do not have the funds to partner with internet providers. A new product or service could be deferred because the firm did not have the same access to the market as a larger firm. Senator Leahy’s bill would provide an assurance to current and future entrepreneurs and innovators that they will continue to have equal and open access to a platform for their ideas.
Faster service is inevitable as technology advances over time, but restricting access to the market and new ideas can be irreversible, culminating in the concentration of power among the strongest players. Leahy has purported his bill to be a “Bill of Rights” for access to the online world, arguing that it is the “ultimate marketplace of ideas, where everyone has a voice and the best products or services succeed based upon their own merit.”
The absence of net neutrality will likely impede this bastion of ideas. Open access to the free market, including the “ultimate marketplace of ideas,” is indispensable to human flourishing, and without such economic liberty the creation of wealth for all members of society may be needlessly inhibited.