Cicchitelli: The Net Neutrality Paradox

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The Net Neutrality Paradox - RI Relevant

Like many of Trump’s more public reversals from Obama-era policies, the FCC’s recently repealed ‘Net neutrality’ rule is mired in new-normal partisan contention.

But what the repeal of net neutrality really does is make it harder for new players to compete on today’s internet. Established entities gained even more of an upper hand. The repeal of net neutrality is an act of protectionism.

Perhaps what’s all too familiar is that the narrative got lost in the woods of tangential or otherwise distracting details and misconceptions.

The idea of net neutrality has been around since the net’s incepton. It was finally made a rule by the Obama-appointed FCC in 2015. It was a long-fought battle on several fronts.

Free Market Conundrum 

The intent was to enshrine 3 core principles, which are that internet service providers (ISPs) do not block users, do not discriminate against users, and do not prioritize usage.

In other words, net neutrality made the infrastructure of the internet open and available to any entity without giving preferential treatment to particular users, namely large corporations who might want to pay to have their product given an advantage over competition. In many ways, net neutrality is akin to a public roadway.

The popular narrative of the anti-Trump cohort on the left suggests that without net neutrality social media giants like Facebook or Twitter, for example, might suddenly start charging a fee to ordinary accustomed users, or else bar access, in some sort of a-la-carte internet.

But such a thing does not adequately represent the actual potential consequences. In that example, it’s likely that a new, rival service that derives profits from a different avenue, would emerge to take market share away from the landed service.

Rather, a dismantled net neutrality makes it harder for new players to use the internet to compete with current giants. That is, arguably, the most important takeaway.  

Favoring The Strong

The proponents of the Trump-appointed FCC take the side of the ISPs (internet service providers), who already exist in a highly profitable, competitive, and often subsidized environment.

Their argument is that since ISPs build and maintain the infrastructure, they should be able to decide how people use it, and collect fees from users that want more or faster traffic, and penalize those who do not. On its surface, it claims to be a pro free market argument.

Predictably, ISPs and their investors are against net neutrality. But oddly they are joined by libertarians and free marketeers–core right-wing constituencies that in the same breath espouse market solutions. One would think that establishing infrastructure rules or framework so that ideas and services can freely compete for hearts, minds, and wallets, is a very free market thing to do. And yet, that constituency opposes it. Therein lies the paradox of net neutrality.  

It’s important to remember the competitive environment that created the internet winners that we take for granted today. The once mighty MySpace and AOL were snuffed out by newer and better services in the same space, for example. Facebook itself has not been around long enough to have graduated middle school.

And yet, here comes the Trump FCC effectively declaring protection for the internet as it stood in year-end 2017, favoring landed giants against new concepts that might hope to compete against them.

The internet is a frontier of possibility and it is naïve the think that we can predict its evolving role in our future lives.

An Equal Playing Field

Just a few short years ago web services on your phone were just a playful dream. Now, we are hard-pressed to go without.

It’s not far-fetched to imagine that if the Trump FCC existed during the rise of the internet we might all be stuck using dial-up–given the protections that would have been hypothetically granted to AOL and CompuServe.

The marketplace of entrepreneurs and inventors should be able to continue to use the internet to invent, evolve, and adapt whatever awesomely useful–or thoroughly dumb–things we have yet to find out about.

We should not be protecting sacred cows simply because they currently possess their corner of the internet.  Net neutrality means allowing for competition to continue to evolve and to thrive. Hopefully, that’s in spite of misplaced partisan brinkmanship.   

Nick Cicchitelli
Nick Cicchitelli is a political consultant, real estate investor, and commentator on state and national policy issues; advocating for evidence-based policymaking in specialties such as public finance, political economics, intergovernmental relations, and human capital. His experience includes working with front-running candidates for statewide office, state government, and nonprofit organizations based around Providence, RI. He holds masters’ degrees in Public Administration and Political Science from the University of Rhode Island, and a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from The George Washington University.
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