Net neutrality is a hot topic in libertarian circles. May libertarians mistakenly see net neutrality as another unwelcome intrusion of the state into the free market. It’s not that uncommon of a trap for libertarians to fall for. When they see a battle that appears to be private enterprise versus government they instinctively side with private enterprise. But net neutrality isn’t a debate between private enterprise and government regulations. It’s merely government regulations versus government regulations.
The mistake lies in seeing businesses like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast as private enterprises. In reality they are where they are today thanks to special privileges granted to them by the state. AT&T and Verizon, for example, have government granted monopolies over a lot of wireless spectrum and Comcast enjoys near or outright monopolies in many areas thanks to government control over who can build networking infrastructure where. Many states even have restrictions against municipalities providing Internet service because of Internet service provider (ISP) lobbying efforts.
But that’s not all. At one time telephone companies were the primarily ISPs. But ISPs have become content providers and content providers have become ISPs. I believe this is what really sparked the net neutrality war. Companies with monopolies on a great deal of copyrighted material suddenly found a way to further exploit that monopoly by controlling what their ISP customers can access. Comcast can leverage its licensed monopolies on a lot of entertainment content by charging competitors such as Netflix an inflated rate that makes it untenable for Comcast customers to utilize Netflix. And if you just download the content from alternate sources (such as BitTorrent) you’re in violation of the law because you don’t have a license for that monopolized content.
What more libertarians should focus on is the fact that there is no free market in providing Internet access. Only those granted permission by the state can do so. And much of the content that makes the Internet valuable is controlled by a handful of ISPs that will happily withhold said content unless you’re getting Internet access through them.
In other words no matter who wins we lose. Losing net neutrality won’t be a win for the free market and keeping it will mean more government control over something that has had too much government control over it. What is truly needed is the destruction of the monopolies on content and infrastructure, which isn’t going to happen through the political process (since the content providers/ISPs have such effective lobbying efforts).
2 thoughts on “Net Neutrality for Libertarians”
As a network tech, I don’t see how Net Neutrality could be enforced without far more government involvement in the running of networks. Network traffic is already shaped and controlled for legitimate reasons, and it would be merely different settings on the same controls to shape traffic for anticompetitive reasons.
What we need is competition. I pay Time Warner for access to Netflix, among other things, if they interfere and try to steer me towards their own content I’ve got little reason to stay with them…except that the only viable alternative in my area is ATT.
Exactly. We need to destroy the current monopolies. At least if there is actual competition there will likely be at least one ISP whose selling point will be traffic neutrality.
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