Net neutrality shouldn’t be a partisan issue. The internet isn’t a government agency even though a number of governments around the world would like to restrict their citizens access to it and regulate the content that flows through it. If the internet, as it is viewed in the United States, is a means by which liberty, equality, and democracy intersect and are expressed, then shouldn’t the Republican and Democratic wings of Congress unite on those three pillars of American society?
Is there any contention in the area of liberty as it pertains to the internet? It does not appear that way. The left replaces the word “liberty” with “freedom” and sticks pretty close to the traditional wording of the open internet, meaning no blockading of consumer access to the legal content of a website.
The right would agree with the left that consumers should be able to access the legal content of their choice. This issue goes to the fundamentals of conservative philosophy, liberty.
Regarding equality, I see contention. On the left, equality on the internet means that traffic from one website is treated the same as traffic from another website. A broadband access provider should not be allowed to throttle a site’s traffic prior to delivering the traffic to a consumer. The principle of equality would also hold, according to left internet philosophy, regarding the issue of paid prioritization. Paid prioritization occurs when a content provider pays a broadband provider for the privilege of special treatment of its traffic. The broadband provider may provide the content provider with “faster lanes” or some other privilege that grants that content deliverer’s traffic some priority over other traffic.
The right may not necessarily disagree that paid prioritization grants a one provider an advantage over another. Whether that advantage is fair or merely a valid business decision is the question and if the decision to provide priority to one type of service versus another is reasonable, then why not?
Prioritization occurs every day. Take the example of packages sent via a common carrier such as the post office. A consumer of postal services has an option of paying to send mail via regular mail or by priority mail, getting his package to its final destination within the next one or two days. The content of the mail may be such that rush delivery is of the essence.
Taking a flexible approach to prioritization may be in keeping with varying demands of different applications. In its recommendation for bipartisan legislation on net neutrality, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation noted that:
“Legislation should allow clear flexibility for traffic differentiation for applications that require it, avoiding an overbroad flat ban on prioritization, while clearly prohibiting anticompetitive conduct. Legislation should put some restrictions on paid prioritization to limit the potential for abuse, such as a simple ban on exclusive dealing or a requirement
to offer similar terms to all customers.”
Finally, the left has made vigorous arguments that broadband access providers have the potential to threaten democracy on the internet because of their technical capability to block and throttle traffic. This potential bad behavior would restrict a consumer’s ability to choose or produce the content of her choice.
While conservatives may empathize with the self-expression argument, I would expect a two-pronged rebuttal. First, since broadband access and the internet (for the most part) is a private, commercial enterprise, there is no state action intervening in a citizen’s right to participate in the political process. That alone should make the concerns about democracy moot. Second, it is not in a broadband provider’s best business interest to discourage the use of its network. The more users and more traffic exchanged, the greater the revenues and profits and lower the operational costs of the network.
Given the heightened concern over the last two years about privacy on the internet, the left and right wings of Congress should use the need to bring certainty to privacy as a catalyst for closing the philosophical gaps in the vision for the internet. Privacy is being placed on the backburner which is unfortunate because while most consumers are fine for the most part with the internet as it is (growth in ecommerce is one such indicator of the internet’s health), codifying net neutrality principles, general principles that the left and right agree with, in the form of a statute plus providing bright-line rules on privacy and privacy enforcement will bring certainty to consumers of broadband services as to a safer internet and certainty to broadband providers that wish to continue investment absent the nightmare that a back-and-forth that the current regulatory framework creates.