(Today, Venture Beat is reporting that the government will classify the internet as a public utility. In celebration, I’m posting this article I’d previously written, but never published on Liberty.me.)

Weighed against the categories of entrepreneur, programmer, and technologist, Bayesian reasoning would say the odds are low I oppose net neutrality. Input that I run a startup that would be adversely affected by any increases in bandwidth cost and they get smaller.

Yet here I am. I stand strong. Hear my contrarian roar.

Reddit, Hacker News, and almost every forum or news site I frequent is full of people vociferating for net neutrality*, with hyperbole abound (e.g. “Net neutrality is dead. Bow to Comcast and Verizon, your overlords”). So I figured I’d outline a few reasons why net neutrality is wrong, plus a bonus proposed solution so I’m not just a curmudgeon.

*A credit to its proponents: branding forced equality as “neutral” was well done.

Net Neutrality Violates Basic Fairness and Common Sense

You help run, or own stock in, an airline company that maintains a series of airports. Sometimes, such as in periods of inclement weather, one of your airports has more inbound planes that it can process, so some planes have to wait.

If you get where I’m going with this and you’re already screaming “planes aren’t data!“, please, you’re disturbing the other patrons in the coffee shop.

Obviously, one rule could be to treat all the planes the same. This is net neutrality.

But some of the planes may have perishable goods. Or someone having a heart attack! A much saner rule would be to let the airport decide how it wants to process the planes, using a mixture of moral and economic judgement. Plus, it’s your airport!

This metaphor is equally valid for the internet – under net neutrality, both email packets and streaming medical video for surgeries would have to be treated the same. A packet could similarly be a “perishable good” – consider a video game.

The owner of something should have the right to use (or not use) their property as they see fit and to charge others whatever they desire to use it (who may, of course, decline). There are two common objections to this, one legitimate, one illegitimate.

The legitimate objection is that the government has some claim to existing ISP infrastructure. I don’t know precisely how true this is, let’s assume there is merit to it. Under this assumption, charge the ISPs whatever amount of money is necessary to privatize it and put that money in a bucket. We’ll drain that bucket later.

The illegitimate objection is that ISPs would be a monopoly resulting in crappy service. That’s next.

Net Neutrality Helps Keep The Internet Crappy

It’s conceivable, if not likely, that the removal of net neutrality would improve the internet. Who knows what technologies would result when it is possible to prioritize traffic through a network? Experience tells us technological improvements are extremely difficult to predict, but there’s no doubt that data prioritization makes more things possible. The removal of net neutrality could also simply represents new additional capabilities, paid for by companies that pay for the privilege, with no degradation to existing quality of service.

However, let’s assume the worst case. In this scenario, the FCC is only thing stopping the existing broadband companies from raising prices ten-fold and charging you extra for accessing Netflix*. What happens?

Comcast already sucks [1, 2]. Even with net neutrality, Comcast would still suck. If Comcast gets even suckier, doesn’t demand for an alternative only increase, further increasing the incentives for someone non-sucky to provide one?

Every single thing you see, use, or do will eventually be displaced by something better. If we enforce some level of “goodness” when selfish human nature would lead to “badness”, all we’re succeeding in is delaying the implementation of that next amazing thing. The job of every single entrepreneur would be harder if there was some third party preventing his competitors from acting recklessly or otherwise incompetently. If Comcast had been allowed to suck harder, maybe we’d be on mind-blowing satellite internet by now? The unseen harm can never truly be seen.

Instead, we need to look at what’s preventing consumers to having alternatives from sub-par internet service. There should be almost nothing unique about ISPs that prevents free, robust competition. It’s data! It’s simple! Anyone can transmit it. Or, well, they should be able to. There’s no doubt that aspect of the internet today is crappier than it should be.

How To Fix The Internet

Let ISPs charge whatever carriage rate with whatever preferences they want, potentially with some lag time for introduction. Instead, focus on ensuring there is robust competition in the ISP market, ensuring that existing consumer demand for fast, limitless internet is satisfied. How to do that:

  • Eliminate pre-deployment barriers. Public utilities, coupled with local governments, combine to charge fees that dramatically increase the cost for new companies to compete with existing ISPs (“Don’t Blame Big Cable. It’s Local Governments That Choke Broadband Competition”). Additionally, almost every city requires a prospective ISP to provide service to the entire city at once and for a single flat price, significantly increasing startup costs. Government right-of-way should be viewed as what it is, i.e. a shared public resource. If there are any costs to use it, they should be true costs (if enough space), or regularly bid (if limited space). After researching right-of-way access in Philadelphia, I’d struggle to design a more inhibitory process (shockingly, there was a separate approval process for cable companies only). We need to get the cost and wait-time involved to lay wires to the absolute fucking minimum, so that we can have any many of them going as many places as possible. WIRES EVERYWHERE!!
  • Allocate money towards competition. The existing market broadband players formed under heavily distorted conditions. While the government should be fully handsoff the internet, any money spent by the FCC currently on regulating the industry, as well as any money raised by the government from existing ISPs (discussed above), could be used to establish prize pools or other incentives for more competitors to arise. We already see Google displacing existing ISPs, even with net neutrality and other significant barriers to competition in place. Part of the reason Google is not deploying faster is it has to negotiate with every city individually and get exemptions from the ridiculous rules put in place to prevent competition.
  • Deregulate broadcast frequency spectrum. Completely open mass portions of the spectrum currently allocated via exclusive bidding by the FCC. This will increase competition and lower costs of entry for wireless and satellite businesses. Again, make it so that relatively small scale service provision is possible. Make data as ubiquitous as water — bandwidth can only be valuable if it’s scarce.

What’s Different About The Internet?

In almost every other industry (e.g. transportation, education, car & house rentals), entrepreneurs and the tech industry are fighting for less regulation and less government involvement. Consumers know best, let them choose! But not here. What’s so special about wires and computers?

Nothing. And that’s why net neutrality is a bad idea.

(And since liberty.me really likes pictures, this is where I’ve started putting memes.)