Wednesday, December 1, 2010

My proposals for net neutrality

Today FCC chairperson Julius Genachowski announced a proposed net neutrality provision. Net neutrality, for the uninitiated, is the proposition that internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast or RoadRunner can't block websites, emails, IMs, etc. that contain messages that they don't like. The Star Tribune is reporting that Comcast is blocking ads from a local ISP which criticizes Comcast's exorbitant rates. This would not be allowed under the net neutrality.

The FCC has tried to run net neutrality before. But was told by courts that it doesn't have specific power granted to it by Congress to do it on its own. So Congress must create a law for Genachowski's proposal to be anything more than nice ideas.

The rhetoric for net neutrality is persuasive. The fears of Comcast blocking emails or ads critical to it are sobering. But there is a fundamental problem with them: Comcast is a private entity.

As much as I hate Comcast and big business in general--and believe me, I do--they are a private "citizen." (or at least a private entity). It's like the government telling the people inside of Abercrombie that they have to allow American Eagle's ads into their stores. I would personally rather shop at Target, but I don't think the government should tell them to advertise for each other.

Net neutrality advocates would argue that there is a difference because you can simply go to another store in the mall, but you can't switch internet providers whenever you want. It takes a lot of time to switch and it's a pain in the butt. I'll agree with this, but I don't think the conclusion you draw is the need to force private actors to say or advertise for things they don't want to. I think there are a couple of things we can do to fight blocking.

First: trustbusting. When telecommunications was taken over by Bell, the FTC went after them. To the extent that there are no other market choices caused by monopolies or collusive behavior the FTC should take them down.

Second: transparency. Make ISPs note which websites they block. Make it public knowledge who they do business with. Much like the nutrition facts on food, this would let consumer know what goes into their net. Furthermore, if an ISP blocks they will be publicly accountable for their bad practices.

Third: public internet. To the extent that cities can provide low-cost internet, ISPs will be forced to compete. If there are good competitors to ISPs than they wont want to lose customers with controversial blocking.

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