The “Net neutrality” debate is an abstract and misled argument where contrarians pit the free market theories of Adam Smith against the regulatory theories of Karl Marx in an attempt to determine if and how the Internet can be regulated. Currently, Net neutrality exists: all Internet users receive the same amount of broadband access for the same price. Furthermore, Internet providers may not block or limit access to illegal websites like BitTorrent or websites that take up high amounts of bandwidth like YouTube.
Internet service providers such as Comcast, however, are attempting to gain the right to prohibit access to bandwidth-heavy sites and to offer Internet packages with varying amounts of broadband access. At the center of the Net neutrality debate are the Superior Court and the FCC. The FCC has taken the side of Adam Smith, encouraging a laissez-faire approach. The Superior Court has taken a semi-Marxist view, arguing that companies have the right to regulate access to bandwidth-heavy sites and to offer Internet packages with varying amount of broadband access.
This abstract debate overwhelms the traditional regulation vs. laissez-faire argument because of the Internet’s venerated status as America’s last frontier. The Internet appeals not only to our unique sense of adventure and discovery (we can travel the Oregon Trail) but also to that greatest American tradition of laziness (we can do so from our sofa). We have grown so quickly to take these freedoms for granted that today it is simply inconceivable that we should be robbed of these pleasures by opportunistic private enterprise.
So, should the unregulated Internet be bought and parceled in the same way as the once free-roaming hills of the western frontier?
Hell no, it shouldn’t. But history tells another tale.
History tells us that where there is total lack of regulation; one firm grows its market share so large that it creates regulation to stop competing firms from entering the market. Let us observe the destruction of the western frontier as an example. In 1862 The Union Pacific Railroad (UPR) used its enormous market share in the railroad industry, money and influence to lobby lawmakers to pass the Pacific Railway Act. The Act granted the UPR monopolistic control over the transcontinental railroad. This is what happens when regulation becomes the advantage of the strongest firm.
Free Internet will die. Not because Smith’s arguments won or because Marx’s arguments won but because these two seemingly contradictory arguments were more compatible than anyone cared to notice. The application of Smith’s laissez-faire theories to Internet use has allowed large firms like Comcast to grow unchecked to the point of near monopoly. Comcast’s large market share has given it the power to successfully lobby the government to write regulation in its favor.
It is always with a poignant nostalgia that we watch the destructive capability of capitalism when democracy fails to strike the right balance between regulation and laissez-faire. Helpless to preserve a way of life that we have built, forgetful that we’ll ever fall in love with another frontier, we begin the quest for freedom anew.