As I was scrolling through my social media news feed yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice a letter you wrote to Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Your letter, in response to Mr. Cruz referring to Net Neutrality as “Obamacare for the Internet”, portended to explain to the Senator just how Net Neutrality works.
I am not Ted Cruz, but I do happen to write for a couple of reputable online publications and put a considerable amount of thought into current events and policy issues. As I read your letter, two concerns formed in my mind:
1) I’m not sure you’ve really thought through the ramifications of the Net Neutrality standards that you’re attempting to justify.
2) I’m also not sure you have even a cursory understanding of some really important concepts surrounding the whole debate – free association, free enterprise, and heck, even freedom itself.
So in the spirit of cooperation and mutual understanding (and because I consider myself a good sport), I’d like to help you out with an explanation of these concepts.
Imagine that you good folks at The Oatmeal decide to start a web hosting service. So you take out a loan, buy a bunch of server space, hire some tech geeks and graphic design hipsters, and launch your web service. Now imagine that the KKK applies for access to your web service. Or a group called “People for Torturing Puppies.” Or a competing business who plans to put up a page called “OatmealSucks.com”
Of course, since you’re providing a service at cost to yourself, you have the right to
turn down any or all of these people, for any of the above reasons – or pretty
much any other reason in the world.
Now imagine that those groups got upset at being turned down, and sued OatmealWebHosting.com for discrimination – claiming that it wasn’t
fair of you to allow others to use your services, while denying them. After all, we all have a right to internet service, just like the air we breathe.
Only, really expensive air. With wires. And towers. And routers. And devices. And maintenance. And security. And tech support call centers in other countries.
That lawsuit would be fundamentally unjust. You started the service, you created the terms of service, you’re providing the service, and you have the right to decide who you do and do not wish to conduct business with.
That important right is called free association. And that’s the concept that the internet was founded upon – not some hippy mumbo jumbo about having a “right” to products and services provided by someone else.
Because despite the fact that it looks little like it did when a bunch of dudes with muskets fought off guys who for some reason wore bright red targets to battle almost 250 years ago, this is still America. And part of what makes America, America, is the fact that we can decide what we want to buy and sell, and from whom we want to buy and sell, for whatever reason we want.
People can decide to buy burgers from Wendy’s because they like redheads. Best Buy can decide to stop selling Apple products because they’re tired of attracting the condescending hipster crowd. Wal-Mart can move all their factories to the US and double their prices on everything so that they can raise their starting wage to $15/hr.
And then Chipotle can choose to reject their future business.
These transactions, and others like them, are generally referred to as free-market transactions, because nobody tells people who to do business with or how to conduct it.
Wendy’s decides what products it carries, based on what they think people will buy. Wal-Mart decides how much it will pay for employees based on how productive they think those employees will be. Chipotle decides whether it would rather sell to suburban soccer moms or redneck Rambos, based on what they want their business model to attract.
These businesses were not started to make your life easier, or to give poor people jobs, or because their founders thought it was just cool to build and sell things in their free time. They were started for one reason and one reason only, despite what cute stories show up on the TV ads or the back of the cereal box: to make a profit.
And profit, despite Michael Moore’s sanctimonious condemnation, is not a dirty word. Profit is the lifeblood of companies – both of awesome companies like Tesla Motors (which is also currently trying to fight back the government’s “fairness” regulations), and really, terribly, God-awful businesses like, say, the Oakland Raiders. Without profit, pretty much all the goods and services you enjoy on a day-to-day basis go buh-bye.
See there’s a real logical problem in your equating of “fairness” to “freedom”. They’re not the
same thing. Let me illustrate. Let’s imagine that you’re in a college Sociology class. You love the class, you get along with the teacher, and you study hard every day of the week (except Saturday, which you mostly spend hungover and exhausted, eating leftover pizza and playing Minecraft because resolution is irrelevant when the room is shaking). The midterm
approaches and you notice that you’re the only one studying for the test. So you take the test, and you ace it – even nail the extra credit essay question on Marx – but the rest of the class fails miserably. The next week when the scores are released, you find out that everyone in the class got a B on the test. Everyone.
See the problem? Everybody there had the freedom to apply themselves and study, but only some made use of that opportunity. So by failing to discriminate, the teacher is actually being unfair. You worked hard and prepared, you deserved an A. Similarly, some internet content agencies are easy to get along with, and require little from broadband providers. And some are difficult, and require a lot more. Reclassification under expanded Net Neutrality rules is actually completely unfair to those providing the services, but totally popular with the consumers waiting for what they think will be a free ride to high speed awesomeness.
But here’s how it will end up working:
Fair doesn’t mean everyone getting the same thing. Fair means everyone getting what they deserve.
That’s why fairness isn’t the same as freedom. We’re all free to pursue happiness, but only those who pursue it, attain it. You don’t enter into a legally-binding contract with a provider, and then insist that they change their end of the bargain to suit you. That’s not how freedom works.
Nobody forced you to buy from Comcast, just like nobody forces you to buy burgers from Wendy’s or burritos from Chipotle. But you (and Netflix, incidentally) bought from them because you shopped around, liked their offers, agreed to their terms and contracted for their services. And now that those services aren’t up to your expectations, rather than finding a service that fits your needs, you’d rather sic government on them to force them to provide what you want (which is determined by your situation and preferences), rather than what you paid for (which is determined by those itty-bitty words in the contract you signed when you accepted service from your ISP).
“But,” you might say, “There are only a handful of broadband providers in the country – there aren’t any options that I like!” Now you’ve touched on the REAL problem – a problem that Net Neutrality cannot fix, but the free market can: a lack of competition. And that’s a problem to lay squarely at the feet of the government you’re so anxious to hand the reins over to. See it’s really hard to start a new ISP, and the reason is that the providers have worked hard to make sure that government regulates any potential competition to death.
But don’t worry.
I’m sure that Net Neutrality legislation won’t be influenced in any way by these companies that it is about to deputize as functional internet utilities… Just like Obamacare wasn’t influenced in any way by the big insurance companies whose products are
now mandatory despite much higher premiums.
And I’m also sure that the FCC (which will be the sole enforcement mechanism for any Net Neutrality standards introduced) doesn’t have anything in common with the other federal agencies who so frequently and unapologetically trample on the Bill of Rights. In fact, I’ll bet none of them are anything like the people who recently got caught spying on millions of innocent
Americans by striking lucrative deals with cell phone providers. Nah, that could never happen.
I’m also sure that expanding government regulation of the internet couldn’t eventually result in either an internet tax (thanks for the heads-up on that, Sen. Cruz) or outright censorship. After all, corporate/government partnerships like those proposed under the reclassification always work out well – just ask Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or the U.S. Postal Service.
See you’re right, Oatmeal, the internet should be free; but free of state coercion, not free of cost or competition. Giving control to government is a one-way street. If you don’t like Comcast, you can switch to Cox. If you don’t like Washington, you’re pretty much just out of luck.
So, my fiber-rich friends, I and many other blog-trolling, multiplayer-gaming, music-streaming internet enthusiasts would like to challenge you to reconsider your view of Net Neutrality, and ultimately your view of freedom as well.
I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite tech nerds from the 18th Century, Thomas Jefferson. Okay, maybe not exactly a tech nerd, but he did invent the moldboard of least resistance, and he had some pretty cool ideas about freedom, too. TJ, who also happened to author the Declaration of Independence, recognized that freedom, unregulated and unfettered by government, would be a hassle. But being the thoughtful, tyrant-defying, wig-sporting boss that he was, he also decided the following:
“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.”
So let’s drop gub’ment controlled Net Neutrality, give the free market a chance to solve the minor problems attending our technological liberties, and watch the internet change history.
All my best wishes, with cinnamon and raisins on top,