The Washington Post Slams Net Neutrality Regulation

by on September 28, 2009 · 15 comments

The Post, hardly a bastion of radical cyber-libertarianism, has come out strongly against FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s plans to have the FCC issue “Net Neutrality” regulations. The editorial asks the critical threshold question we crazy cyber-libertarians always insist on:

Is this intervention necessary?

Mr. Genachowski claims to have seen “breaks and cracks” in the Internet that threaten to change the “fundamental architecture of openness.” He and other proponents of federal involvement cite a handful of cases they say prove that, left to their own devices, ISPs… will choke the free flow of information and technology. One example alluded to by the chairman: Comcast’s blocking an application by BitTorrent that would allow peer-to-peer video sharing. Yet that conflict was ultimately resolved by the two companies — without FCC intervention — after Comcast’s alleged bad behavior was exposed by a blogger.

Thus, the FCC oppposes pre-emptive regulation that would “prohibit ISPs from ‘discriminating against’ different applications,” noting that  this would mean that “ISPs, which have poured billions of dollars into building infrastructure, would have little control — if any — over the kinds of information and technology flowing through their pipes.”

Three cheers for the Post for recognizing both the property rights of ISPs in their networks and the fact that, even with Genachowski’s “slight concession” to allow “managed services in limited circumstances… unneeded regulation could still interfere with [ISPs] ability to manage bandwidth-hogging applications that can hamper service, especially during peak times.” Instead, the Post called for simple transparency, supporting a requirement that “ISPs be candid with the agency and the public about network management practices. The last paragraph hits the ball out of the park:

Mr. Genachowski claims that the FCC “will do as much as we need to do, and no more, to ensure that the Internet remains an unfettered platform for competition, creativity and entrepreneurial activity.” He will advance this goal by insisting on transparency; he will jeopardize it — and stifle further investments by ISPs — with attempts to micromanage what has been a vibrant and well-functioning marketplace.

Amen! The Post is about as “mainstream” as it gets in American journalism, so their strong opposition really underscores that preemptive “net neutrality” regulation isn’t the popular cause some in Washington think it is. It is simply infrastructure socialism.

  • MikeRT

    I think a full disclosure policy would certainly be beneficial and one of those compromises that libertarians must make on regulations. The way that ISPs operate is often very weasely, bordering on fraudulent, in the way that they work to instill a perception in their potential customers that they are getting unlimited service for a fixed price. That does need to be addressed.

  • dm

    “ISPs, which have poured billions of dollars into building infrastructure, would have little control — if any — over the kinds of information and technology flowing through their pipes.”

    That's known as a “feature”, not a “bug”.

  • brettglass

    I've long advocated transparency but not micromanagement of ISPs or their business models. See http://www.brettglass.com/principles.pdf — written quite a while ago but still just as relevant.

  • Jim Reardon

    Leave no turn unstoned! Genachowski can't even come up with a rational case for his policy leanings. It's just a matter of doing something and being relevant. And of course, the money and control.

    Break the Internet down for a minute and reconsider all these arguments. We have access services, transit services, exchange services, and application services. The market for access is very competitive — multiple technologies that reach out to the same customer and location. Not at all like the voice telcos (don't confuse their involvement in this market with dominance). Cable, wireless, satellite, you name it, there is access anywhere you need it and many places that you don't.

    Transit services? The price is so low that it can hardly be regulated. The whole phone network could fit neatly into the IP transit infrastructure, if the government would only get out of the way and stop propping-up incumbents. Quietly, these incumbents abandon their old infrastructure for greener IP fields, but Ma and Pa are still paying through the nose for phone calls that actually cost so little to connect that the dominating cost of sales is billing itself — and of course, the Federal excise tax.

    Exchange Services? Also competitive. The technology guarantees that it will stay that way. If the colo rent is too high, people move next door and connect (see transit services, above).

    Application Services? Well, strictly speaking, these are not a part of the network. And they are already regulated according to industry and need on many governmental levels. Just because a bank is on the Internet, that doesn't make it anything other than a bank. When Google offers telephone switching services, they are behaving like a telco and probably subject to current regulation.

    But we've already called into question the value and benefit of telco regulation, so maybe this is just a case of treating everyone equally poorly, at the expense of the public.

    Googe Talk will sooner or later be forced to establish a service fee, if only to support calculation of an excise tax on its service. Instead, we should be questioning why Google's competitors continue to charge astronomical rates for phone service while they divert more and more traffic on to the Internet. Maybe its time to put a fork in the whole thing!

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  • http://srynas.blogspot.com/ Steve R.

    DM has made a critically important observation is discussing net neutrality. Sure there are technical reasons for managing the flow of information, but to manage the flow based on “content”? Like MikeRT, said “The way that ISPs operate is often very weasely, bordering on fraudulent,…”. ISP's are hired to deliver packets.

    Now for my typically bad analogy. When you go to UPS or Fedex you hire them to deliver packages. You do not expect them to tear open to boxes to examine the contents nor do you expect them to toss the packages in the trash if it is inconvenient for them to deliver.

  • dm

    Transit services? The price is so low that it can hardly be regulated. The whole phone network could fit neatly into the IP transit infrastructure, if the government would only get out of the way and stop propping-up incumbents.

    Well, there's that whole last-mile thing, which is still pretty critical to the IP infrastructure, and lacks competition beyond a duopoly. There's a lot of expense in maintaining it, and that expense comes from somewhere.

    Yes, magical wireless ponies will solve all those problems. Until lots of people move onto the technology (which, curiously, is more expensive than the wired solution — at what price fairy dust?).

    Of course, cutting away a bit at my own snark, we may replace blogs with twitter, a technology that's a good deal easier for magical wireless ponies to transport — you can see that at work in many Asian blogs, which have short, frequent posts, mediated by cellphone. Technology changes and is hard to predict. Those last mile companies may just be in the buggy-whip business, now.

  • dm

    It is critical to the debate, though as many have noted, increased transparency is a possible solution. You can't get much more transparent than neutrality, from the customer perspective (setting aside the difficulty verifying that what you're actually receiving is neutrality).

    There's a bit of a sleight of hand going on in some of the posts on this topic — typically centering on the iPhone — trying to shift the focus from open access to content by consumers (sometimes wearing a producer hat themselves) to a focus on “innovation”.

    “Innovation” is not the only reason for pushing neutrality, though it is an important one.

  • brettglass

    If only the Post's news coverage were as unbiased as its editorial page! The editorial is balanced and nuanced, saying what is good and not good about Genachowski's plan. But Cecilia Kang, the reporter whose “beat” includes “network neutrality,” is extremely biased toward regulation. She wrote a gushing feature on “network neutrality” lobbyist Ben Scott in which she praised him to the skies, and routinely writes “news” articles which, instead of being evenhanded or objective, effectively lobby for “network neutrality” regulation. She also writes a blog (“Post I.T.”) which is similarly slanted. When a newspaper's opinion page is more evenhanded and reasonable than its news reporters, it's time to take a serious look at getting a better reporter.

  • brettglass

    If only the Post's news coverage were as unbiased as its editorial page! The editorial is balanced and nuanced, saying what is good and not good about Genachowski's plan. But Cecilia Kang, the reporter whose “beat” includes “network neutrality,” is extremely biased toward regulation. She wrote a gushing feature on “network neutrality” lobbyist Ben Scott in which she praised him to the skies, and routinely writes “news” articles which, instead of being evenhanded or objective, effectively lobby for “network neutrality” regulation. She also writes a blog (“Post I.T.”) which is similarly slanted. When a newspaper's opinion page is more evenhanded and reasonable than its news reporters, it's time to take a serious look at getting a better reporter.

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