The Free Market, Not Government Net Neutrality Mandates, Will Best Serve Consumers

In an editorial from earlier this week entitled “Net neutrality not so neutral,” the Orange County Register quoted me from an article I wrote on the subject for The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty last year (“Net Neutrality or Government Brutality?” July/August 2008 issue).

On the issue of government regulation of the Internet versus private-sector incentives, I wrote: “In the free market, competition ensures that customers receive the services they demand. Government control, by contrast, ensures that they receive whatever services the politicians and bureaucrats in power at the time deem appropriate.”

Below are some additional excerpts from the Freeman article. Read the full article here.

Net-neutrality proponents contend that they want to use regulation to increase competition and innovation, but their remedies would have the opposite effect. The growth in demand for bandwidth-intensive applications, such as streaming video, multi-player online gaming, and telemedicine, will require vast capital investments. Broadband providers will not invest in such projects, however, if there is not a good chance they will be able to recoup their costs and turn a profit. This is not unlike how cable companies currently rely on richer customers paying for premium services so that they can invest in less-profitable ventures, such as providing infrastructure for services to rural areas.

[. . .]

The costs of stifling competition and innovation through net-neutrality regulations would be significant. A May 2007 American Consumer Institute study estimated that regulation would cost consumers $69 billion over ten years. According to study author Stephen Pociask, “Despite proponents’ best intentions, net neutrality proposals would be a twofold problem for consumers. Innovations that require a guaranteed level of service won’t come to market, and consumers would have to pay more for the services they receive.”

Price discrimination is another concern of neutrality advocates. Despite the negative connotation associated with the word “discrimination,” price discrimination is a common and efficient way of allocating scarce resources and satisfying consumer demand. Children and seniors get discounted ticket prices at movie theaters; people pay different prices for different seats at concerts and sporting events; and some toll roads charge different prices depending on the time of day and the resulting levels of traffic congestion. In response to an FCC Notice of Inquiry regarding broadband practices, the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (of all things!) heralded the value of price discrimination in a September 2007 statement, noting the example of the U.S. Postal Service: “The U.S. Postal Service, for example, allows consumers to send packages with a variety of different delivery guarantees and speeds, from bulk mail to overnight delivery. These differentiated services respond to market demand and expand consumer choice.” The Department concluded, “Whether or not the same type of differentiated products and services will develop on the Internet should be determined by market forces, not regulatory intervention.”

In other words, the government should simply get out of the way and allow the market to work. Government should not try to pick winners and losers.

When neutrality proponents say that people have a right to “neutral” provision of information over the Internet, they are really saying that the public has some sort of right over the private property of the companies that provide the access to that information. Some have tried to justify this argument by claiming that the Internet was designed to be neutral, but it is the freedom from government restrictions that has encouraged innovation and allowed the Internet to flourish.

[. . .]

The concept of the “tiered” Internet is not something to be feared. On the contrary, it could be a means of enhancing services to broadband customers, providing revenue for ISPs to invest in accommodating increasing demand for bandwidth-intensive and delay-sensitive applications and making further improvements to data delivery, and of increasing fairness by ensuring that content providers responsible for the most Internet congestion pay the higher costs of assuring a high quality of service for Internet users. Choking off this potential revenue stream through net-neutrality mandates will only ensure that instead of an Internet with regular lanes and “fast lanes,” all consumers will be stuck in the slow lane.

Other Resources:

My colleague and Reason’s telecom/IT analyst, Steven Titch, has done some great work on this issue. See his blog from Tuesday on Net neutrality and the FCC’s recent proposal to mandate it, as well as policy study from earlier this year, The Internet Is Not Neutral (and No Law Can Make It So). The rest of his work can be found here.

Adam Summers is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. He has written extensively on privatization, government reform, law and economics, and various other political and economic topics.