Democrats kick the net neutrality can down the road again

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats today announced introduction of the Save the Internet Act, legislation that would repeal the Federal Communications Commission’s 2017 Restoring Internet Freedom order and replace the 2017 order with the Commission’s 2015 Open Internet order. Speaker Pelosi’s rationale for replacing the 2017 order with the 2015 order includes:

  • Lowering costs and increasing choice for consumers;
  • Giving entrepreneurs a level playing field on which to compete;
  • Helping bring broadband to every corner of the country; and
  • Ensuring American innovation and entrepreneurialism can continue to be the envy of the world.

From a banking and trade perspective, the rationale offered by the Democrats for repealing the current set of net neutrality rules at the Commission sounds good. Lowering the cost for accessing an information trading platform provides the benefit of reducing information discovery costs. Bringing broadband to every corner does increase the chances of network effects taking hold where the value of a network increases as more traders use it. As network effects increase, more data traders and content providers will be encouraged to carve out more niches on the internet and provide data consumers more options for content sources.

But what was blatant from an economics perspective was the total lack of discussion in the bill itself about how an advanced communications infrastructure underpins the economy; its role as part of a three-layered infrastructure that has supported the exchange of value since the earliest days of trade between small communities. At issue here is, in terms of trade, does the Save the Internet Act facilitate trade? My answer is no and the failure is due in large put to a number of mistakes driven more by politics than economics.

Mistake: Believing the Internet is About Democracy. It is Not.

The classic argument from the Democrats is that a free and open internet is great for American democracy; that gateway keepers such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon should not be allowed to prevent citizens from expressing themselves via broadband. But is accessing content via a communications technology the same as expressing thought via voice, graphics, and text over that medium?

I can buy and read a newspaper but it is not the same as sending letters to the editor or leaving comments online. If democracy is about expression, then there are plenty of examples where expression is limited in the private sector, and we should not forget that core providers, such as AT&T and Verizon, and edge providers, such as Facebook and Netflix, are private companies providing the data collection, data distribution, and data access that creates value on the internet.

Could Americans in their zeal for unfettered access to the internet as a digital medium for exchanging value and communications be conflating corporate power with government power? Building on the earlier point, democracy is about the relationship between citizens and government. Democracy is about the limits citizen and government agree to.

Democracy recognizes, at least in theory, that the State has a resources advantage that can be used to oppress the individual, thus preventing her from trading for and consuming resources necessary for daily survival. This imbalance in power is why democracy, again in theory, allows the citizen to express herself in the ballot box by choosing the representatives that are supposed to keep government at bay.

Unless core and edge providers have some agency relationship with government that puts them in a position to bring down the power of government on the citizenry, then corporation is in no position to stifle democracy.

Mistake: Congress Does Not Understand the Relationship Between Corporation and Government.

Corporations are not chartered by governments (state or federal) to protect consumer rights. Corporations are expected by government to create taxable events. They are expected to hire labor and apply capital in order to extract and process resources in such a way that they become deliverable for end use consumption. Both wages paid to labor and purchases are taxed in order to fill government coffers. To maximize taxable events, corporations must come up with more revenue streams or innovate the packaging and sales of product in order to create additional demand.

In the case of broadband access providers, they see an information services market that they would like to play in so that they can increase shareholder wealth. Competing with Facebook and Google allows these companies to create additional revenue streams that can be used not only to increase their shareholders’ wealth but, as mentioned above, generate taxes that go into government coffers. In short, government shoots itself in the foot by disallowing broadband access providers to not enter the content market.

Conclusion

The Democrats’ two-page legislation will not bring any improvement to a communications infrastructure that provides support for trade and commerce in the United States. It keeps broadband access providers out of the information markets, eliminating incentives for broadband access providers to expand their service offerings.

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