Force is NOT Neutrality

The issue of “Net Neutrality” is one that I’ve been personally grappling with in my mind for a long time now. For those of you not familiar with the term “Net Neutrality”, a very quick explanation is the idea that Internet providers should not be able to restrict their users from any content on the Internet. For a more thorough explanation, please search Net Neutrality on Google.

I certainly agree in principle with the idea of Net Neutrality. I personally want complete and unrestricted access to the entire Internet. I would not appreciate an Internet provider restricting what I can see on the Internet, or prioritizing traffic in a way that negatively affected my experience. However, I can not agree with the idea of having government enforce Net Neutrality on Internet providers. Especially if the regulations were created by an unelected bureaucracy such as the FCC.

The danger in having government regulate the Internet should be apparent. Unburdened by the suffocating interventions of government, the Internet has simultaneously become both the greatest marketplace in existence and the most extensive source of information the world has ever witnessed. It is this free-flow of information that makes the Internet what I believe to be the greatest tool of freedom mankind has known. It is precisely this freedom that Net Neutrality proponents want to protect. But in a panic to protect these freedoms, some Net Neutrality proponents believe they should try to use the brute force of government to achieve this goal. They may not realize however, that once you let the government fox in the hen house, you’ll likely never get him out.

Asking the government to regulate Internet providers, even in the attempt to keep the Internet free, opens the door for further regulation. That future regulation may not serve to keep the Internet free. Net Neutrality proponents may not see it that way now, but rarely does any group take the time to consider that the tide of big government rolls with those who control it. Once we’ve allowed the government to regulate something, we’re allowing anyone with future control of government to regulate it in any way they see fit. Their agenda could be directly opposed to our intentions. And once the government has begun regulating something, rarely will they willingly give up their regulatory power.

The struggle in my mind has been satisfying my desire to ensure a free and neutral Internet but doing so without the involvement of government. It took me quite a while to fathom a way to do this, but a recent article gave me some clarity.

The company OpenDNS, which I personally use and recommend to many of my clients, was featured in an article where they claim the Internet provider Verizon is already blocking their service. I’ll allow you to read the article to find out the details of what OpenDNS is claiming, but basically OpenDNS believes Verizon wants to block their service so they can monetize DNS queries for themselves. They want the FCC to stop ISPs like Verizon from being able to do this. Verizon claims they are not blocking OpenDNS, however, so this makes for a very unclear situation.

What I don’t understand is why companies like OpenDNS can’t see that preserving Net Neutrality is something that can be done in the same spirit of freedom as the Internet itself. Hardly does a single, heavy-handed government “solution” work well. However, free people working together can develop many ways to solve problems. I can think of a few options just off the top of my head.

One very simple thing that OpenDNS can do to preserve themselves is to make their service so valuable that their customers would fight on their behalf. Any company that is trying to give their customers the best products and services possible is already 90% of the way there. If customers depend on a company’s services, they aren’t likely to sit idly by if someone tries to stop them from using those services. If certain ISPs start to block external DNS services like OpenDNS, then their customers might take their services to other ISPs.

OpenDNS could also partner with ISPs and share profits. There could be so many ways to do this that I’ll leave it up to the imaginations of the companies involved to figure out the details.

I really think that Net Neutrality proponents could do a lot more good by devoting their energy towards public education. Ultimately if customers are educated enough on the concept of Net Neutrality, they will demand it from their ISPs. Watchdog groups could monitor the ISPs and provide the public with reports on their openness. It really doesn’t seem all that hard. Worst case, if ISPs really believe they could gain additional revenue from offering non-Net Neutral services, they could offer those services at a lower cost. The market would then decide which services they want, not some bureaucrats in Washington.

The good news is that the status quo is currently Net Neutrality. It would take quite an effort for ISPs to undermine this, even more so if Net Neutrality is a concept that most customers have been educated to adopt. I believe it would take the cooperation of nearly all the ISPs in the country to decide to simultaneously undermine Net Neutrality. This would be highly unlikely. First, I can’t see where the ISPs would think that the effort required to undermine Net Neutrality would be profitable for them. Second, the level of trust and cooperation required would need to be so precise and well-coordinated, it is hard to believe that so many companies could pull it off. If any ISPs wouldn’t cooperate in this grand conspiracy, they would have the advantage of being able to offer Net Neutral services to their customers. I don’t think ISP’s trust each other enough to believe this wouldn’t happen.

In summary, the rush by some Net Neutrality proponents to have government save the Internet looks a lot like a tempest in a teapot. The greater crime would be to get Big Brother get their foot in the door now and get used to the taste of Internet regulation. I’d much rather take my chances with the multitude of privately-owned ISPs that have an incentive to keep competing with each other, than to let big government get their hands around the neck of the Internet. Don’t let the snake inside the proverbial garden. We all know how that turns out.

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