I’ve been asked a lot over the last few weeks about my position on the Open Internet “controversy,” but frankly, I do not see much that is all that controversial in the issues.
My undergraduate degree was in economics, and I find that lens to be a useful approach to many questions. Nearly everything has an economic aspect to it, and so the laws of economics need to be reckoned with. Ignore them at your peril, and override them only with care.
So here are my principles on how the Internet should operate:
- First, no censorship, meaning there should be no discrimination over the content of information. I believe strongly that the Internet can be a very powerful force in the democratization of the world, and that it should be open and accessible to anyone. That can also make it a conduit for evil, but the potential for good far outweighs the “benefits” of any possible censorship.
- Second, no discrimination as to the source or destination information. Everyone should have equal access to the Internet. This means no denying access, but by extension no favoritism or differentiation in quality of service. Everyone has to be treated the same.
- Third, everyone should pay for what they use. At the lowest level, if my cable company wants to charge more if my usage goes over a certain level, that seems fine to me. By analogy, then, a heavy corporate user such as Netflix should also pay for the services they use (which I understand is often up to 10% of the Internet traffic during prime time these days).
This is all pretty standard stuff, and I suspect most people will immediately agree. The only real controversy is whether the government should establish policies to enforce these principles. My view is “sure,” and I reach back to Economics 101 for the justification.
The issue, really, is monopoly.
Sometimes companies gain too much power over the market and to restore competition we need to break them up, such as the classic case of J.D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Other industries are viewed as “natural monopolies,” which, by nature will have only one, or perhaps a few, suppliers. The classic example here is electricity distribution, since it makes no sense to have multiple sets of power lines going past my house. We allow these companies to dominate, but then regulate them to ensure that they act responsibly.
The Internet is a remarkable creation: it exists mostly just as a set of technical protocols. Various companies then provide the physical resources which allow it to operate. There is plenty of competition in some areas, such as the switches and routers. But the “lines” are another issue. There are, by nature, only a few providers of the communication backbone for the Internet, and these companies are large and powerful. Similarly, the “last mile” of delivery gives my cable company monopolistic powers over which I have little control.
As a society, I believe we are best off with setting a set of rules for how these companies operate, and that really means some amount of government regulation.
Can regulation be heavy-handed and stifle innovation? Sure. But the absence of regulation can have similar results; monopolies, after all, also stifle competition.