Net neutrality is not as cut and dry as it first appears
If you’ve been on Facebook in the past week, it would have been hard to miss the topic.
It has been at the top of my feed in every form: from Barack Obama saying repealing net neutrality would “end the internet as we know it,” to the ever-present Oatmeal comic, to internet memes from Portugal threatening an online apocalypse.
I have discussed net neutrality with several friends, and, on average, it takes about 30 seconds for both of us to admit that we do not actually know what we are talking about. Unless you happen to be one of the enlightened few, you are likely in a similar situation.
Regardless, people have strong opinions about the topic—and who wouldn’t, if the free and open internet was truly about to be torn apart by the machinations of dastardly corporations?
Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University, was a supporter of net neutrality when it first was proposed, but since then has reconsidered his stance. In his opinion, the emotional pleas and catastrophic rhetoric of net neutrality supporters do not have a basis in reality.
Such claims assume that businesses would “contradict profit-maximizing behavior” and that “no future evolution of regulation could solve or address” potential problems down the road.
Cowen believes worries of dangerous monopolies are overblown at a time where consumers have more options than ever before, and that post-net neutrality, existing monopolies will not want to shake up the market and risk a backlash anyway.
Even at its implementation, net neutrality may have lacked justification.
A paper written by 21 economists, including Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith, argues that net neutrality did not actually solve any existing problems in the market, but actually has the potential to hurt consumers in the short and long run.
Even if problems did arise, net neutrality is not be the only possible way to correct abuses by ISPs or other actors.
Cowen cites the Progressive Policy Institute and their case-by-case proposal as a better, more surgical solution that lacks the sweeping downsides of net neutrality.
Another of the purported benefits of net neutrality is that it spurs innovation by allowing new companies and startups to enter the market. In this area, Tyler Cowen is not alone in doubting net neutrality’s laurels.
A study by Roslyn Layton at the American Enterprise Institute argues that the FCC’s original claims about the necessity of net neutrality were not backed up by any empirical analysis of similar rules around the world.
Using data from 50 countries that currently practice net neutrality, she also found that “hard” neutrality rules such as the FCC’s do not create or protect innovation as is sometimes claimed.
The Netherlands, a nation with extremely rigid neutrality rules, saw a decline in innovation, while Denmark, in a period of “voluntary self-regulation,” saw an increase in innovation as measured by successful mobile applications created.
The study concluded that “soft” (voluntary) rules were more effective at stimulating innovation.
Jeffrey Tucker, a writer at the Foundation for Economic Education, goes even further.
He argues that net neutrality allows entrenched companies to raise the costs of entering the market, boxing out new competition by making starting a new ISP prohibitively expensive.
In other words, net neutrality could mean that you and I will have to deal with Comcast and Verizon sales representatives, forever.
All this said, I personally do not yet know where to stand on this issue. Whatever your opinion on net neutrality, it is far more complex than internet memes acknowledge.
Sadly, a soundbite from John Oliver will never be enough to summarize the issue’s full implications.
This short summary of a few arguments does not do either side justice.
But the point is that we all should read a bit more before we proclaim the imminent death of our online lives or, conversely, that net neutrality’s end will usher us into a golden age of freedom and competition.
If you cannot find the time to read now, you can wait for SPU’s Political Union’s planned event on net neutrality in early winter quarter. Come to hear both sides of this topic presented with the help of an outside expert and get your questions answered.
I hope to see you there!
Brevin Anderson is a senior studying political science and English.