Net Neutrality Violates Property Rights Principles

Published July 29, 2011

Network neutrality, a euphemistically labeled and insidious concept, is perhaps the biggest current threat to the Internet, chiefly because it threatens property rights by supplying the wrong answer to the question of “Who owns the pipes?”

The House of Representatives correctly voted April 8 to rescind the net neutrality rules passed by the Federal Communications Commission last December. The U.S. District Court of Appeals unanimously decided against the FCC’s attempt to impose net neutrality rules against Comcast a year ago. But the main reason both entities rejected the FCC’s action was that the FCC didn’t have the authority to implement and impose the rules.

That is correct but unfortunate, because ignoring the importance of property rights leaves holstered a major weapon against the concept of net neutrality. That leaves President Obama, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and fellow commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Michael Copps, and a host of like-minded organizations and individuals such as Free Press and Tim Wu (the Columbia University professor, author of The Master Switch, recent appointee to the Federal Trade Commission, and coiner of the phrase net neutrality) free to persist in their assault on the Internet.

Property rights are the bedrock principle of any free society, as noted by great thinkers such as John Locke, Edmund Burke, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. The repudiation of these rights was at the center of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and it is essential in the arguments put forth by net neutrality advocates.

The latter would argue the pipes exist as public entities for the equal—”neutral”—access of all, regardless of whether they’re being used for remote robotic surgical procedures, a download of Ingmar Bergman’s classic film The Seventh Seal, a viewing of the Pamela Anderson flick Barbed Wire, or an illegal download of all the songs by The Beatles. Key to their argument is the characterization of the Internet as an egalitarian wonderland with a reasonable expectation of quick and equal access to downloads, voice and video protocols, streaming, and the lowly email.

Thus some Internet content suppliers such as YouTube, Netflix, and Skype insist the pipes be made “dumb,” treated as nothing more than basic infrastructure for the transmission of information they provide. That argument works to their financial advantage, of course, by giving them legal leverage over the companies that build the pipes. But it conveniently ignores the rights the industry ought to have over its property, the result of the companies’ heavy investment in the Internet infrastructure, without which there would be no pipes to argue about.

This is not a matter of altruistic government and philanthropic organizations protecting us from big, bad businesses. It’s an argument between two types of businesses: the businesses that build the Internet infrastructure, or the businesses that pay nothing to use it. Government is siding with one group over the other. I suspect a look at campaign contribution numbers would go a long way toward explaining why.

As property owners, the Internet service providers have a right to deliver whatever they think to be the best service for their customers. If they do a bad job of it, they won’t need government to tell them: their customers will.

That returns us to the question of who ultimately “owns” the pipes.

The answer, dear reader, is you, the customer. You’re the one who gets to decide whether the pipes enter your property, deliver content and services, and push out into the cyber-universe the videos, emails, bill payments, and instant messages we’ve all become privileged to enjoy on a daily basis. For this privilege, you select an ISP based upon your individual needs, desires, and budget.

Customers left free to choose will guarantee ISPs’ continued buildout and innovation as the latter compete for customers’ business based on their respective desires for speeds and levels of satisfaction.

The government doesn’t own these pipes, and it shouldn’t decide what goes through them and when. Why would you want to give that power to anyone else? You own the pipes in the most important way possible, your ability to force the providers to do your bidding or lose you as a customer. If you support net neutrality, you’re giving that right away—for nothing.

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s Infotech & Telecom News