The Net Neutrality Riddle
Why are Edward Snowden's supporters so eager to give government more control over the Internet?
There's a telling moment in Laura Poitras' Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour. As Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower at the center of the film, packs his bags in a Hong Kong hotel for a desperately uncertain future, the camera lingers for a beat on the book near Snowden's ever-present laptop: Cory Doctorow's novel Homeland.
As sci-fi nerds can tell you, Homeland is no random novel. The book tells the tale of a wary, civil libertarian college-dropout hacker who has in his possession a four-gigabyte file of nefarious government documents, which he seeks to release even as powerful interests stalk his every move. Sound familiar?
The novelist is also no ordinary scribbler. In addition to producing Prometheus Award–winning novels, Cory Doctorow is an influential copyright reform activist and co-editor of the hugely popular tech-culture group weblog BoingBoing. As the media thinker Lawrence Lessig pointed out last year, Citizenfour's core audience of geeks recognized Homeland as one of several key "internal references," along with the stickers on Snowden's laptop from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the online privacy tool Tor. "If you are a public official on the wrong side of this fight," Lessig proclaimed, "that core will stand against you."
But that's not quite true. Or at least, it's not the whole story. As I watched Citizenfour for the first time the day after the Academy Awards, the Doctorow reference felt bittersweet. That's because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was on the cusp of a long-telegraphed 3–2 vote along party lines to place unprecedented regulatory controls onto the Internet. And one of the key lobbies supporting the FCC's intrusion was led in part by none other than Cory Doctorow himself.
Under the vague banner of "net neutrality"—once technical jargon, now a surprisingly effective political slogan—federal regulators unceremoniously shoved the Internet out of the less-regulated "information service" category and reclassified it as a "telecommunications service," thus subjecting it to oversight under the far more hands-on Title II of the Telecommunications Act. The aim, in the words of supporters such as Doctorow, is to forcibly prevent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon from "extract[ing] ransom from everyone you want to talk to on the internet." That such ransom notes have stubbornly failed to materialize has been deemed immaterial.
As dissenting FCC commissioner Ajit Pai puts it bracingly in a must-read interview with reason's Nick Gillespie on page 44, net neutrality is "a solution that won't work to a problem that simply doesn't exist." Instances where large ISPs have violated the principles of the "open Internet" are vanishingly few, and all involve disputes between corporations that were resolvable under existing laws, not circumstances where Comcast is brutally repressing a lone defenseless blogger.
Why did the same Netizens (as they are no longer called) who rally against government in the name of privacy turn around and rally in favor of it when it comes to data prioritization arrangements? Partly because of a deep-seated and wholly understandable dislike of ISP giants. In a world where very few brands matter anymore on a visceral level (with Apple being one of the few exceptions), companies like Time Warner and Comcast inspire deep hatred. My family probably called Time Warner customer service at least four dozen times in our two years as unhappy clients; the moment we were able to escape to Verizon felt like V.J. Day. Champagne was uncorked.
It's not hard to upgrade such well-deserved customer hostility from assertions of incompetence to accusations of organized thuggery. As Doctorow charged in The Guardian last year, "The ISPs aren't seeking to get paid, they're seeking to get paid twice: once by you, and a second time because you are now their hostage and the companies you want to do business with have to get through them to get to you."
But one problem with today's (and yesterday's) complaints about ISP giants is that they discount the more competitive developments coming tomorrow—if government gets the hell out of the way. As Geoffrey A. Manne and R. Ben Sperry explain in "How to Break the Internet" (page 20), "imposing public-utility regulation under Title II means the qualities you don't like about your cable company will become more widespread. It will mean less competition, reduced investment (especially in underserved communities), slower broadband for everyone, and new regulatory hurdles for startups." If you don't like what the comparatively free market offered, just wait until broadband providers start feeling more like your local electric company.
Manne and Sperry argue that allowing the Internet industry to set prices on data prioritization (or not!) is an excellent way to maximize the potential for experimentation and business development. We'll all be streaming live video to and from all our devices soon enough; somebody needs to build out the infrastructure to make that possible. And an underappreciated benefit to legalizing prices is that it allows total unknowns to buy their way onto the same radar screens as the major players. Take that ability away and incumbents will become even more entrenched.
Even if you take as given that tolerating data-delivery prices equals allowing for "discrimination," it's still a terrible idea to task the government with preventing it. Adam Thierer, the thinker behind the concept of "permissionless innovation," explains on page 30 ("Uncle Sam Wants Your Fitbit") that the precautionary principle could prove disastrous if applied to America's globally envied Internet culture. "If we spend all our time worrying over worst-case scenarios," Thierer argues, "that means the best-case scenarios will never come about either."
Are the days of the freewheeling Internet behind us? Of course not. To see why, look no further than the proclamations 15 years ago from the very people cheering loudest today about net neutrality.
When AOL announced a merger with Time Warner in 2000, the media activist Robert McChesney warned that unless the mega-deal was blocked on antitrust grounds, "the eventual course of the Internet—the central nervous system of our era—will be determined by where the most money can be made, regardless of the social and political implications." Not only was the macro-prediction wildly off-base—the course of the Internet has continued flowing through every which way that humans dream up, regardless of the money implications—but the micro-fear was quickly rendered ridiculous as well. AOL Time Warner no longer exists; its remaining husk sheared off Time Inc. in 2013.
Yet McChesney and his Free Press group continued soldiering on, lobbying on behalf of net neutrality for more than a decade now. Their short-term victory is a triumph of fear over evidence, of anti-corporate animus eclipsing suspicion of the state. I don't expect anything different from pessimistic anti-capitalists, but it's more disappointing coming from libertarian-fluent, future-loving optimists like Cory Doctorow, whose work has been discussed scores of times in the pages of this magazine.
So consider this special issue of reason the beginning of a new conversation. To our net-neutrality-hating friends on the right, we say thank you for correctly identifying "Internet freedom" as a key political and moral issue for our time; America's online innovation has been one of the most salutary developments of the last two decades, one that everyone on every side of every political debate benefits from. Now let's talk about clemency for Edward Snowden.
As for Cory Doctorow and our pals on the techie left, we promise you this: After the FCC's net neutrality push is rolled back by the courts—and it will be—let's talk together about why we think a government powerful enough to read all your emails is one that we shouldn't entrust with protecting the future development of the Internet. We're all in favor of free minds; it's up to us to persuade you that free markets are the quickest way to get there.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Net Neutrality Riddle".