Organization Trends

Keep Calm & Celebrate the End of Net Neutrality

It’s a joyous occasion for limited government, free speech, and free market principles. On June 11th, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to officially repeal the Obama-era net neutrality regulation and liberate the Internet from government overreach.

In the wake of the repeal, net neutrality advocates have darkly prophesied the Internet’s descent into a 1984-type dystopia. Without Big Brother benevolently overseeing the Internet, they argue, consumers are doomed to suffer great abuse at the hands of greedy Internet service providers.

Proponents argue that the regulations are crucial for preventing ISPs from exploiting customers by manipulating their services. They claim that without net neutrality rules in place, ISPs can “force” users to pony up more money or face slower connection speeds, or even be blocked from accessing certain domains completely.

But it’s difficult to see how net neutrality activists can make such apocalyptic claims, considering net neutrality was not really a win for the “little guy” but rather a blank check for Big Government to tighten its regulatory grip and mandate how Internet service providers (ISPs) manage their business activity.

At its core, net neutrality is antithetical to free-market economics. The regulations established that ISPs cannot engage in “paid prioritization” aka charging higher prices for better services. Consider that the U.S. Post Office charges different prices for different delivery speeds, but under net neutrality, ISPs would be prohibited from making similar market-based pricing decisions.

The fears of the net neutrality peddlers don’t seem grounded, considering how well the Internet flourished before the Obama administration created these price-fixing rules…in 2015. Before then, competition between ISPs drove down prices for consumers and drove innovation up. After Obama’s FCC pushed through net neutrality with the dubious claim that the Internet should be treated as a public utility (like telephones), investment in broadband access decreased significantly. This means that innovation decreased, and the overall consumer experience declined.

The net neutrality camp claims the rules protect free speech, but just the opposite is true. Tim Wu, the law professor who coined the term, says net neutrality gives the FCC the opportunity to shape “media policy, social policy, oversight of the political process, [and] issues of free speech.” With the regulation of the Internet could follow the government’s censorship of political adversaries, like conservative talk shows and radio experienced under the 1960s Fairness Doctrine. By way of contrast, consider that Venezuela’s socialist regime does use its vast powers to regulate the Internet.

Outside of the military, the government has a poor track record of managing projects and initiatives. Remember the rollout of the Obamacare website? After years of development and costs exceeding $2 billion, famously crashed shortly after launching.

That was just one website. Given the government’s track record, placing the entire Internet in the hands of a group of unelected bureaucrats may not be the best idea.

How do regular Americans feel about these rules? A 2017 poll by Morning Consult indicated that only 33 percent of those polled say the Internet should be treated as a public utility, while 51 percent said it should not be. That’s hardly the makings of a grassroots movement.

If the public isn’t clamoring for increased regulation of the Internet, where did the hysteria over net neutrality start?

As John Fund wrote in the Wall Street Journal, the net neutrality rules are the brainchild of Robert McChesney, a University of Illinois professor and self-professed socialist. McChesney believes that the media is responsible for propping up capitalism, and he has argued in the Marxist magazine Monthly Review that the government should regulate journalism and free speech in order to bring about a socialist revolution. “[A]ny serious effort to reform the media system,” he wrote, “would have to necessarily be part of a revolutionary program to overthrow the capitalist system itself.”

McChesney and his principal lobbying group, Free Press, have even been criticized in the left-leaning Huffington Post for using the guise of “ free and independent” media to “further McChesney’s abstract revolutionary vision.”

Realizing that bizarre vision required the euphemistically named “net neutrality” rules—but first McChesney and Free Press needed to invent the problem. So, they advanced phony claims to support the diagnosis that the Internet was unfair, unfree, and desperately needed to be regulated. As CRC president Scott Walter wrote in 2017, the “net neutrality cabal” found support among influential left-leaning funders like the Ford Foundation and George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. As Fund noted, these wealthy funders conveniently fund think tanks like Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which produces research that fits the net neutrality agenda.

It isn’t surprising these funders joined the net neutrality crowd considering many of them championed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002—better known as “McCain Feingold”—which aimed to limit political spending and therefore free speech. Net neutrality is a classic tale of expanding government control and restricting free speech under the illusion of “fixing” a problem.

It’s encouraging to see the regulatory burden lifted from such a crucial sector of Americans’ economic and social lives.

As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

Caroline Downey

Caroline Downey is a CRC research intern. She is studying economics and political science at Boston College.
+ More by Caroline Downey