The FCC's Ill-Fated Quest to Make the Internet a Public Utility

If you logged into your Netflix account last night to binge watch one of your favorite shows, you’ll probably noticed the “wheel of death” icon spinning. That’s because Netflix, along with a number of other popular websites like Etsy, Kickstarter and Foursquare, are trying to make a statement about an impending decision from the Federal Communications Commission to impose net neutrality on broadband provides. Companies with business models based on massive content distribution, like Netflix, who use the majority of network bandwidth, are seeking government intervention to advance policies that give them a free ride, and pass bandwidth costs along to consumers.

Earlier this year a federal court struck down the FCC’s “Open Internet Order,” which would have forced internet providers to slow down speeds by prohibiting a “fast lane” for bandwidth hogging content – like streaming video – that places a greater burden on the network. But the FCC is pushing back with a new version of net neutrality.

It’s helpful to look at the debate over net neutrality in terms of basic free market principles. Bringing the internet underneath a government entity like the FCC would foist more regulations on internet providers, inevitably stifling competition between companies and making the internet slower for everyone.

In other words, “net neutrality” is a nice-sounding term that basically says “let’s make the internet a public utility.” The history of similar regulatory regimes, implemented on services like traditional landline telephones, demonstrates the stifling impact of government control.

Should the FCC prevail in their plans to regulate internet access, they’ll be mixing apples and oranges. The internet is not a traditional utility, like water or electricity, and can’t be treated as such. It has, and will continue to, thrive when government takes a hands-off approach and allows innovators to improve it.

Concerns that broadband providers will slow down or even block websites currently have zero basis. Calling for equality for all internet users is absurd because not everyone uses the internet in the same ways. It stands to reason that someone streaming Netflix will require more bandwidth, say, that the person browsing eBay, and providers should have the freedom to adapt to those requirements. Internet access overall, in fact, is only getting faster and more widespread. Government-mandated “fairness” will only evaporate private investment in new broadband capabilities and reduce companies’ incentives to innovate and get a leg up on their competition.

More is at stake here than economic growth, however. The impending FCC decision will affect our first amendment rights by opening the door for government censorship of the internet – a much more frightening prospect than broadband companies creating “fast lanes.” It’s not hard to imagine the FCC using its regulatory powers over internet access to clamp down on free speech online in the name of prohibiting misinformation for the greater public good.

The Sierra Club has come out strongly in support of “net neutrality,” citing fears that “a corporate polluter or tea-party billionaire” could buy out an internet provider and censor their climate websites. So far, that hasn’t happen, but it’s funny how their fears don’t extend both ways. What if one day some government agency decided climate skeptics were a threat to democracy? Somehow that scenario seems much more plausible, and it’s all the more reason to stand for a free internet right now.