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Do We Trust The Government With The Internet?

By - February 18, 2011

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As you all know each day I summarize links I find worth reading, toss in a few lines of offhand commentary, and send it out as “Signal.” So far a few thousand folks have subscribed to it, and while it’s not exactly Pulitzer material, it’s fun to do and it is a nice way of forcing myself to not just read the news, but think about it as well.

Last night, quite late it turns out (I had a dinner), I once again sat down to do Signal. The first piece I came across (from the WSJ) sparked something of a rant in me. I’m going to re-post it here, for this audience, to see if it sparks any kind of response.

The backstory is simple: The Journal article, which covered a Congressional hearing on the FCC’s approach to regulating the Internet, opened with this: “In a contentious hearing, House Republicans attacked new regulations for broadband Internet lines and criticized the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission for adopting them.”

I read on – I’ve been interested in this issue for years, as many readers know. This particular hearing centered on the concept of net neutrality, which I support, though your mileage on the definition of that term may vary. (More on that here).

In any case, the third paragraph of the article opens with a quote from Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It was this quote that sparked my Signal mini-rant. Here is is, in full, with a bit more formatting added:

”Why would you put the government in charge of the Internet?” asks the Republican leader.

Well that certainly begs a pretty big-picture question, don’t it?! Perhaps because we trust in both the Internet and our government? Because that government is supposedly under the “rule of the people” in a “democratic system”? I mean, why the hell have a government if we don’t actually believe in what it embodies?

Do we not believe that the Internet is a resource fundamental to freedom, innovation, and our shared humanity (Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Iran…)? I think we can all agree to that. So in what system should we entrust the Internet? I’d argue it should be within our best expression of shared and collective will – so far, that’s what we call democracy, no? Sure, it’s messy, but I guess the question then becomes, can we trust our government, messy as it is? Or is it the enemy?

Is unfettered capitalism a better approach? I’d certainly prefer the Internet be governed by a system in which we can vote the bastards out should they mess it up. If they regulate to the point where innovation and freedom suffer, then vote them out. If they leave it unregulated to the point where choice is stifled and we pay more each year for less, vote them out. If instead we opt for a total free-market approach, OK cool, I hope it works out. But if companies have the ability to lock in access, content, services, and innovation, well, history teaches us that a few of them will certainly work hard to do just that.

And if they win? Well, by that time, it might be hard to vote ‘em out. A good debate to have, no doubt.

What do you guys think?


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19 thoughts on “Do We Trust The Government With The Internet?

  1. Tim says:

    The problem is that the agency that would regulate the internet (the FCC) has already been captured by a combination of bluenoses and big businesses. If the choice is giving the Pacifica vs. the FCC guys more power, (or the guys who let ATT run an unchallenged monopoly long past ridiculousness), I tend to favor letting the market sort it out.

    This approach depends on technologies like LTE and mesh networking coming along and providing viable competitors to our current broadband providers- but it seems like this is more likely to happen quickly if we don’t allow the incumbents to write the rules – as they have a historic track record of doing.

    I realize this is not a position that everyone supports- but it seems as though free markets have beaten out command economies throughout human history.

  2. John says:

    Tim, what is “the Pacifica”?

  3. Tim says:

    Pacifica vs FCC

    It’s the court case that enshrined the FCC’s ability to regulate broadcasting for obscenity. Pacifica played george carlin’s 7 dirty words, got sued, and the FCC got a sweeping new regulatory power.

  4. Tim says:

    Whoops, I wrote “obscenity”, I meant “indecency”, which is a far lower standard.

  5. John says:

    Ahh…the Pacifica decision, right. Would be interesting to see if Republicans would agree that if the FCC shouldn’t regulate the Internet, perhaps they shouldn’t regulate the seven words either?!

  6. Tim says:

    That would definitely improve things on terrestrial radio and broadcast TV! By making everything that transits the public airwaves suitable for a three-year-old, we’ve bowdlerized our culture- ironically, helping to lead to the rise of cable tv in the first place.

    Another wrinkle is that the FCC is only interested in protecting “lawful” content. Here’s what Genachowski said:

    Thus, the proposed framework would prohibit the blocking of lawful content, apps, services, and the connection of non-harmful devices to the network.

    So the FCC gets to decide whether a given packet is “lawful”. Some day a jackass like Ed Meese is going to be back in charge, and “lawful” can easily turn into just as much of a regulatory landgrab as “indecent” or “equal time”.

    If you only like governmental regulations when your guy is in charge, you have to assume that your favored politicians will always be running things. It may be smarter to avoid giving that power – even to your favored political party- knowing that the pendulum is likely to swing to the other team at some point.

  7. John says:

    well, my point is that at least we can vote out the team, like we did Bush 1 and 2. And the other side can say the same about Clinton and Obama’s first Congress. That’s OK with me.

  8. Mike Belshe says:

    The problem is that you can’t ‘vote them out’. Are there any instances in our history, ever, where we have given the government control and then been able to take it away? There are none.

    By contrast, the market does let you “vote them out”. That is – you don’t buy products that stink. If one company refuses to give you the best deal, then another company will. The only case where this doesn’t happen is when there is no competition. So the government’s job should be, as it always has been, to help preserve competition and the market works.

    Would there be an instant in time where you were unsatisfied with your service? Maybe – but if you get to the point where you’re ‘voting them out’, isn’t that already the case?

    One last point – the government has demonstrated that even if it can accomplish, it can’t do so cheaply or efficiently. The market has a natural filtering system for inefficient companies. The government has no equivalent.

    Don’t let the feds in – you’ll regret it.

  9. Dimitri says:

    Just like many other things, but to a much higher degree, simply because of the sheer pace at which the internet permeates more aspects of society every day, this is a matter that surpasses US borders.

    I’m going to make a vast, unfounded declaration, but it seems to me that just like urbanization could be construed as the most important societal trend during the 20th century, internet connectivity holds the title for the current era. And a whole lot of new wealth will be created based on that new, ever-evolving structure.
    If the foundations that have made and are still making the internet such a success story (and are being threatened by net partiality) aren’t preserved within the US, for organizations as well as individuals, then either one of two things could happen: either the US will not-so-slowly fall behind in matters of economic and social development as compared to other regions of the world, or, since the US is such an important player on the global stage, the whole thing will eventually become obsolete. Both scenarios are catastrophic for US interests.

    Another point is that ensuring net neutrality necessitates some kind of long-term vision trumping short-term appetite for profit and avoidance of potentially costly infrastructure investments. Corporations are almost by definition not inclined to make those sacrifices willingly.

    Therefore I believe the US government has no rational choice but to regulate the field and somehow lay down in law the basis for net neutrality.

    The key word here is rational…

  10. Chris Horn says:

    If you haven’t already read it, I strongly recommend Stephen Wu’s Master Switch on the history of the US management of its information economy http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d.html/ref=redir_mdp_mobile/182-7414466-5208050?a=0307269930

  11. BryanL says:

    interesting comparing this view of government to the brouhaha about the PATRIOT act.

    The fact is that you do have a means to vote them out – with only one vote. If you don’t like the I’net you get, you find another vendor.

    Action via vote is a much tougher issue in part because it is communal. Talk to Wisonsin voters about how tough it is to get their vote expressed right now, for example.

    The big straw man here is that there isn’t any competition. Maybe not for very high speed and very low cost at any location, but that is another issue.

    There is competition, it is fierce, and anyone who looks has many options and alternatives available for I’net service. That is what keeps it ‘honest’ in ways governmental regulation can never do.

  12. Fantastic info.
    I have grabbed your RSS feed and subscribed to your information.

    Thank you,
    Doug

  13. Jordan says:

    John, I think the real question is, Should we trust the government, more than Google to run the internet?

    Just think of the power, besides financial Google really has. They can track information, traffic, control information, i.e. search results and affect hundreds and thousands of livelihoods of those who depend on search engines for a living for either traffic or adsense income. I am far from anti Google, but when you think about it, the power of the internet already lies in a small handful of peoples hands already. By putting it in the hands of the government, isn’t really going fix any problems now is it?

  14. don kopp says:

    The real big problem with the government running anything is that it will be less efficient and ultimately cost more.In Illinois the other day I saw 4 state trucks with a total of 12 people picking up trash on the side of the road 1 was working the other 11 were sitting in the trucks! efficiency in action

  15. The government shouldn’t put their noses on the internet. The internet is a group of computers in a large network. So, the government doesn’t own a single part of the internet. They do not have the rights to control it.

  16. kier says:

    Another point is that ensuring net neutrality necessitates some kind of long-term vision trumping short-term appetite for profit and avoidance of potentially costly infrastructure investments. Corporations are almost by definition not inclined to make those sacrifices willingly.

  17. poco says:

    The big straw man here is that there isn’t any competition. Maybe not for very high speed and very low cost at any location, but that is another issue.

  18. So the FCC gets to decide whether a given packet is “lawful”. Some day a jackass like Ed Meese is going to be back in charge, and “lawful” can easily turn into just as much of a regulatory landgrab as “indecent” or “equal time”.

  19. George says:

    Love the inset photo! Thanks John for threading back to 1999, Pirates of Silicon Valley days!

    It seems to me, the internet has changed the world and if you follow the news of late, in ways we never dreamed of! On a world scale, its managed so far with neutrality with minimal oversight, let’s not screw this one up, please!

    Finally, the internet has repositioned the power of information exchange, do we really need to add agency costs or censorship? We have to be careful not to let lobbyists get in front of this one…