Freedom of the Internet

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is.

Freedom of the Internet

Presidential decree not needed to fix it


In the wake of the Republican sweep in the midterm elections, President Barack Obama has decided to disregard the obvious message of the voters and charge ahead with his liberal agenda on a number of fronts. One area where Obama sees the need for more government intervention is in the regulation of the Internet.

The issue of net neutrality has been percolating for several years. While many people glaze over and search desperately for their happy place at the mention of “net neutrality,” it is really a debate that transcends the specifics of the day and is just the latest manifestation of the continual struggle between liberty and government control. In this case, Obama is seeking to advance more government control under the guise of protecting liberty.

The rise of the Internet has been the most transformational development in the evolution of civilization since the institution of farming. It has broken down barriers of thought and borders. It has enabled the first truly global economy. The Internet has destroyed industries and created others. It has allowed for the greatest dissemination of knowledge in history.

There are few areas of life that the Internet has not touched and it continues to expand exponentially into the lives of everyone on earth with each passing day. And while the Internet certainly has a dark side, it has also facilitated an overwhelming expansion of good in the world.

The rise of the Internet is also a testament to what people can do when the government stands aside. It is precisely because the Internet has largely escaped regulation and that the old regulatory structures are illsuited to sink their claws into the ethereal body of the Internet that it has flourished. Those days may be coming to an end if Obama gets his way.

At the root of the issue is the same thing that is at the root of most political issues: money.

On the one hand, there are the Internet providers. These are the cable, satellite and telecom companies that provide the infrastructure to deliver the Internet to your device.

On the other side are the content providers. These are the media, news and advertising companies that provide the actual content that Internet users view through the Internet.

The Internet providers are able to throttle and block traffic however they choose. They can choose to block some websites or make access to them slower or faster. They can do this for technical reasons or they can do it for financial reasons.

One thing that the Internet providers want to be able to do is to charge content providers for consumers for premium access. For example, Time Warner or Charter can make it faster for subscribers to get to Google instead of Bing if Google pays them money for it.

The content providers do not want to have to pay the Internet providers to allow consumers access to their content. Also, since many of the content providers charge consumers for the content, they do not want their customers to be driven away by high prices if they have to pay the Internet providers for access just to pay the content providers for the content.

In the end, you have a war between companies like Time Warner and Comcast against companies like Netflix and Disney for the consumers’ dollars. What Obama is proposing is for the federal government to regulate Internet providers like utility companies and forbid them from prioritizing Internet traffic on their networks for any reason.

What the government should do, and what it has done to date, is keep its beak out of it and let the market decide. The argument for regulating the Internet providers, dubbed “net neutrality,” is that consumers may be harmed if they restrict access to valuable content. This is an argument that fails to address an actual problem.

To date, there is no widespread issue with Internet consumers not being able to reach the content they want. Even if it were, it is not the consumers’ right to access specific content and the government has no business forcing it. Still, if this was a problem, there are literally hundreds of Internet providers and consumers have the choice to take their business elsewhere and the market will correct it. If the market fails and it is deemed in the national interest to correct it, then, and only then, should we consider government regulation.

Here, again, we see Obama going about this with the power of executive action instead of through the normal legislative process. Whether or not we decide that our federal government should regulate the Internet is a massive issue that should be debated and vetted through our elected representatives. It is not something that should be enacted by decree on the authority of a single man.

Leave the Internet alone, Obama. It is doing just fine without you.

(Owen Robinson’s column runs Tuesdays in the Daily News.)