‘Net Neutrality?’ A Really Dumb Idea

Published February 26, 2008

“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong,” as H.L. Mencken put it. The “solution” being bandied about at the moment is “net neutrality.”

As David Weinberger at Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society describes it in The Boston Globe: “Decisions about what information should move over the Internet most expeditiously should not be made by those who benefit financially from those decisions.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? God forbid that those huge network corporations try to squeeze some return on their investment out of our sacred right to freely use the networks their investment capital built, any old way we wish.

Now let’s look at the problem. A recent paper by digiguru George Gilder and Bret Swanson of the Discovery Institute shows it is a huge and “complex” one. Their estimates of the growth of traffic on the Internet will require a 50-fold increase in capacity by 2015. At this point traffic will grow to one zetabyte or 1,000 exabytes. Those aren’t exactly household terms–yet. But consider that one zetabyte is one million million billion bytes of data, or roughly 50 million Libraries of Congress.

As the announcement of their study by the Discovery Institute put it: “New network investments expanding bandwidth, storage, and traffic management capabilities in the U.S. could total more than $100 billion in the next half-decade alone. Technology remains the key engine of U.S. economic growth and its competitive edge, the authors contend. Policies that encourage investment and innovation in our digital and communications sectors should be among America’s highest national priorities, they believe.”

Now if one of the “net neutrality” advocates could just tell us how any network, cable, or telecom company could see its way clear to putting up a penny of that $100 billion while handicapped with the kind of government policies they propose to make sure the investing companies can’t make any more than any secondary corporation they are forced to allow to make use of it. And that is the problem in a nutshell. Pigs will fly first.

Congressman Edward Markey (D-MA) should know we are all indebted to a brilliant man named Ira Magaziner who stood at President Bill Clinton’s side and made sure anything as terminally stupid as Markey’s proposed “Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008” never saw the light of day. They might have a useful chat.

The way to get all those vile, rapacious corporations to spend their money to create the network we need and our digital economy now demands for its continued competitive position and good health is to get out of their way. And let’s follow Magaziner’s successful policy and restrain those most dangerous to our digital economy: dedicated civil servants like Markey working long hours, but still left far behind by the dizzying pace of changing technology.

And if the past quarter-century of history is any guide, those competing companies will stampede each other into giving us more capacity and lower prices than we can imagine.

Thomas Lipscomb ([email protected]) is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute. He founded two high-tech public companies based upon his patents. A veteran journalist, he is the founder of Times Books.