Ludwig von Mises dedicated a great amount of ink to the role that ideas play in shaping society. Not only does his analysis illustrate why it is so important to educate the public on topics such as economics, but also explains the enormous danger posed by widely accepted political myths. Examples include various false narratives such as deregulation caused the financial crisis, that American healthcare costs are driven up due to “capitalism,” or FDR saved America from the Great Depression. Of course. these various fictions, which all enjoy the support of most of the “intellectual” class, all conveniently lead to policy prescriptions that justify ever greater government intervention into the economy and individual’s daily lives.
In recent years, another dangerous myth has worked its way into the American zeitgeist: that government is the only thing guaranteeing us a free and open internet.
Cloaked in the friendly phrase “net neutrality” is an agenda of greater government control. The idea turned into political action in 2015 when the Obama administration ordered that internet providers be treated as public utilities when the FCC reclassified them under Title II of the Communications Act. This move gave the government the ability to regulate the services provided by broadband companies. As a Title II utility, a company would be required to treat all websites equally, and prevented from engaging in behavior like making Netflix load faster than MySpace. While this was sold as a way to protect small companies from being bullied by larger ones, we’ve actually seen the opposite happen in practice. T-Mobile, for example, was criticized for violating net-neutrality when it offered free video streaming as a way to build its positioning among mobile network providers.
In fact, the biggest winners of net neutrality are companies like Google which are granted a massive advantage over online providers, since they don’t fall under the Title II classification.
Case in point, earlier this year online users around the world were prepared to pitch up torches and pitch forks when Congress repealed an Obama-era rule preventing ISP providers from being able to profit off consumer data. The response is understandable, there is a reason why “clear my browser history”: has become a popular last request. But lost in the outrage over the thought of companies like AT&T and Verizon gaining the ability to auction off your private information were a few key points: (1) the rule was new and had yet to be put in practice, so this did not reflect any real change in the status quo; and (2) companies like Google and Facebook still have free rein to do whatever they want with your data. The value of their data mining services would have benefited from government shutting down broadband providers.
Now this is not to say that we shouldn’t strive for an open, more secure internet with greater privacy controls. We absolutely should — just as we should strive for stable financial markets, greater access to affordable healthcare, and taking necessary action to end financial depressions. The problem comes when looking to government as the solution, rather than taking individual responsibility — especially at a time when even Western governments have come to increasingly embrace online political censorship.
Luckily, it seems as America’s Tweeter-in-Chief may be pointed in the right direction. His FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, has made a name for himself as a vehement opponent of “net neutrality” and has staked out an aggressive agenda to roll back the Obama-era regulations.
Of course, the best way to secure an open internet is by allowing for greater online competition. Considering the barriers of regulation at a federal, state, and local level, it’s not a surprise we haven’t seen greater investment in alternative broadband providers. President Trump just recently made a great spectacle out of the absurd labyrinthine layers of regulation holding up infrastructure investments in the US and his desire to get rid of them. That same approach is desperately needed for America’s cyber infrastructure.
The internet is an incredible tool that has radically changed human society, with the potential to do even more. The last thing we should ever want to do is treat that power like a public utility.