Policy Documents

Net Neutrality Is a Bad Marriage of Government, Internet

Bruce Edward Walker –

Like marriage-crazed bridesmaids chasing the bouquet at a reception, legislators often dash madly from issue to issue, chasing recognition and advocating for pet causes. Win or lose, they can always be counted on to chase the next cause célèbre, with little or no accountability for poor choices made in the past.

This is one of the key reasons elected officials and bureaucrats should keep their mitts off the Internet, especially when it comes to imposing network neutrality or Title II reclassification. Many in the public sphere are competent in select categories, but few can wrap their heads around the complex engineering issues required of the information technology industry. Nor do they have a clue about the long-range, unintended consequences of their actions.

As Comcast’s David L. Cohen noted at his Brookings Institution Center for Technology Innovation speech this past Tuesday: “The courts … the FCC … and the Congress [are] all valuable institutions filled with capable, conscientious people … but few of them [have] the background to work out consensus on what are essentially complicated technical issues.” 

Cohen noted broadband policy is dominated by lawyers and lobbyists, not engineers who know how things really work: “No offense to anyone here,” he said. “I’m a lawyer and have done my share of politics. But that kind of experience doesn’t make me, or anybody else like me, an authority on the Internet.”

Cohen identifies the reliable, secure, and fair management provided by engineers for the current accessibility of broadband. Their efforts have brought the Internet and thousands of bandwidth-thirsty applications to an estimated 2 billion users worldwide.
Not only must engineers work with the technology that makes the Internet possible, they must also interact with business people and investors to “support making these networks bigger, faster, safer, and more sophisticated,” Cohen noted.

Comcast is the largest Internet Service Provider in the United States, and 40 percent of its workforce consists of engineers. As Cohen notes, net neutrality is “first and foremost, an engineering issue. To be more exact, it is a set of engineering issues that stem primarily from network management challenges.”

Attorneys and politicians have no idea how engineers make the processing of billions of Internet requests possible on a daily basis. Nor do they have a clue about how best to prevent the 420 million daily attempts to spread spam, malware and viruses, or the botnets “used to steal intellectual property of American companies and steal millions of dollars from banks.”

Before Comcast won its case against the Federal Communications Commission in U.S. District Court last April, it had already addressed the engineering issue at the heart of the case by collaborating with BitTorrent to resolve network congestion issues. The relationship between the two entities remains one of mutual respect. 

Allowing the industry to regulate itself rather than through FCC interference is “the difference between going to a marriage counselor or hiring a divorce lawyer. The first way offers the possibility of working things through to an equitable solution. The second promises to be messy, prolonged, and expensive, even if you win,” Cohen said.

Before a divorce attorney becomes necessary, perhaps politicians and bureaucrats should cease acting like crazed bridesmaids desperate to elope with the Internet in the first place. They should take a step back and allow ISPs the freedom to work with their customers to find reasonable solutions. That would permit them to make a return on their considerable investments and ensure they dazzle the marketplace with continued innovations.

(Bruce Edward Walker (bwalker@heartland.org) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s Infotech & Telecom News.)