Net Neutrality Violates Property Rights Principles

Published April 22, 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, “Who owns the pipes?”

The U.S. House of Representatives 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. Both entities rejected the FCC’s action because the FCC doesn’t have the authority to implement and impose the rules.

That lack of authority is a correct, but unfortunate, basis for ruling against the FCC – because ignoring the importance of property rights leaves holstered a major weapon against the concept of net neutrality. It leaves President Barack 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 about which to argue.

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 and those that earn profits by employing this infrastructure. Government is siding with one 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.

Left free to choose, customers will guarantee continued buildout and innovation by the ISPs competing for their business.

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

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