Not only was network neutrality never a doctrine of the Internet, neither was it a provision in any local franchise agreement. That’s not stopped opponents of franchise reform from subtly implying it has been. Lately they’ve been expressing indignation that statewide franchise reform legislation contains no provisions for network neutrality. A March 27 memo on the current Illinois franchise reform bill (HB 1500) from the Illinois Municipal League to Rep. Jim Brosnahan (D., Oak Lawn), the bill’s sponsor, provides the latest talking points. Amid the list of usual protests over lack of funding for scads of redundant PEG channels, build-out guidelines as opposed to requirements, the general potential for lost tax revenues, the league tossed in “HB 1500 lacks any protections for net neutrality.” That statement introduced an off-topic screed demanding the state government regulate the Internet to ensure all services are treated uniformly, as if banning any sort of enhanced quality tier for video, gaming and other bandwidth-intensive, error-sensitive commercial applications would be a good thing at a time when aggegrate Internet traffic is approaching 1 billion gigabytes (1 billion billion bytes) a month (see Here Comes the Exaflood). The coupling of network neutrality to franchise reform was first attempted in Michigan late last year. That effort, in the form of an amendment to the franchise reform bill, was defeated handily. But similar measures have arisen in California, Maine and Maryland. Let alone that states are on shaky legal ground when attempting to regulate Internet services, which Congress and the FCC have place under the umbrella of interstate commerce, unlike PEG and build-out clauses, net neutrality was never part of any past local franchise agreements. Net neutrality is not germane to the franchise debate. Legislators should not be taken in by assertions that neutrality is something that needs to be “restored” to the Internet. It was never there in the first place.
Steven Titch served as a policy analyst at Reason Foundation from 2004 to 2013.