ALA Troubled by Court’s Net Neutrality Decision

My thoughts on network neutrality can be found here and some predictions contingent on its loss here, so obviously I am disheartened by this latest ruling. The top Google hit on this news is currently a good story at GigaOm, and further down Google’s hit list is a thoughtful article in Forbes, predicting this result, but coming to the wrong conclusion.

I am habitually skeptical of “slippery slope” arguments, where we are supposed to fear something that might happen, but hasn’t yet. So I sympathize with pro-ISP sentiments like that Forbes article in this regard. On the other hand, I view businesses as tending to be rational actors, maximizing their profits under the rules of the game. If the rules of the game incent the ISPs to move in a particular direction, they will tend to move in that direction. Because competition is so limited among broadband ISPs (for any home in America there are rarely more than two options, regardless of the actual number of ISPs in the nation), they are currently incented to ration their bandwidth rather than to invest in increasing it. This decision is a push in that same direction.

Arguably the Internet was born of Federal action that forced a corporation to do something it didn’t want to do: without the Carterfone decision, there would have been no modems in the US. Without modems, the Internet would never have gotten off the ground.

Arguments that government regulation could stifle the Internet miss the point that all business activity in the US is done under government rules of various kinds: without those rules competitive market capitalism could not work. So the debate is not over whether the government should ‘interfere,’ but over what kinds of interference the government should do, and with what motivations. I take the liberal view that a primary role of government is to protect citizens from exploitation by predators. I am an enthusiastic advocate of competitive-market capitalism too, where it can exist. The structure of capitalism pushes corporations to charge as much as possible and provide as little as possible for the money (‘maximize profit’). In a competitive market, the counter-force to this is competition: customers can get better, cheaper service elsewhere, or forgo service without harm. But because of the local lack of competition, broadband in the US is not a competitive market, so there is no counter-force. And since few would argue that you can live effectively in today’s US without access to the Internet, you can’t forgo service without harm.

The current rules of the broadband game in the US have moved us to a pathetically lagging position internationally so it seems reasonable to change them. Unfortunately this latest court decision changes them in the wrong direction, freeing ISPs to ration and charge more for connectivity rather than encouraging them to invest in bandwidth. If you agree that this is a bad thing, you can do some token venting here:

Here is a press release from an organization that few people could find fault with.

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