What's the Problem? A Lesson from the Net Neutrality Debate

by on April 9, 2010 · 5 comments

Several years ago at a conference on universal telecommunications service, one panel moderator noted, “Everything that can be said about universal service has already been said, but not everybody has had a chance to say it, so that’s why we still have these conferences.” After hearings and a study by the Federal Trade Commission, a Federal Communications Commission Notice of Inquiry during the previous administration, the National Broadband Plan, the FCC’s still-open Open Internet proceeding, and Wednesday’s extension of the reply comment period in the Open Internet proceeding, net neutrality is starting to have the same vibe.

That’s why, instead of virtually killing some more virtual trees by writing more lengthy comments and replies, Jerry Brito and I signed onto a declaration by telecommunications researchers which explains that there is no empirical evidence of a systemic problem that would justify net neutrality rules, and these rules might actually ban practices that benefit consumers. Since the world probably doesn’t need another blog post rehashing arguments about this issue, I’ll simply point you to the comment here. It was masterfully written by economist Jeff Eisenach, a veteran of the Federal Trade Commission. (The teeming throngs of humanity who are curious to know whether Jerry and I have any original thoughts to contribute to the issue can read this CommLaw Conspectus article.)

Now that I’ve gotten the shameless self-promotion out of the way, let me MoveOn to a broader point. The debate over net neutrality illustrates how important it is to identify and demonstrate the nature of the problem before trying to solve it.  This applies whether the issue is net neutrality or health care or financial market regulation. Two points in particular bear repeating.

First, ensure that there is empirical evidence of a system-wide problem. The arguments for net neutrality are based on concerns about things the broadband companies might have the ability to do – not empirical proof of widespread abuses that have actually occurred. Less than a handful of famous anecdotes support the argument for net neutrality. Sweeping, systemwide policy changes should only occur when a sweeping, systemwide problem actually exists.

Second, understand the actual nature of the problem. Have a coherent theory of cause and effect that explains why the problem occurs with reasoning that is consistent with what we know about human behavior. Ignoring this point has led to some odd decisions on issues far afield from net neutrality. In 2009, for example, the Department of Energy proposed energy efficiency standards for clothes washers to be used in laundromats and apartment buildings. The justification for the regulation assumed that greedy business owners and landlords willfully ignored opportunities to earn higher profits by investing in energy-efficient appliances! One might argue about whether consumers always identify and act on opportunities to save energy, but assuming that businesses will ignore opportunities to save money is a much bigger stretch.

If you don’t get the problem right, you won’t get the solution right!

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