Net neutrality ruling hinders online freedom

Freedom New Mexico

The Federal Communications Commission, by an expected 3-2 vote, decided to assert its own control over the Internet under the attractive-sounding label of “net neutrality.” This new power-grab will likely be challenged in court, but it is unfortunate that the commission went ahead with this ill-considered idea.

The FCC ruling, which essentially bans Internet service providers from blocking lawful content to their customers, addresses a nonexistent problem. The fear, hypothetical so far, is that companies that sell both Internet access and Web content will block access to competitors’ content. Since ISPs know customers prefer open access and have choices when it comes to ISPs, their business incentive is to provide open access without unreasonable restrictions, and, so far, there have been no examples of ISPs doing otherwise as a matter of policy.

However, lack of a real problem — or lack of statutory jurisdiction, for that matter — has seldom stopped a government agency intent on increasing its power. The Internet has thrived in an environment of virtually no government control and become increasingly important in peoples’ lives. Those whose lives are devoted to increasing the scope of the regulatory state have trouble dealing with the idea that some aspect of life is beyond their control. So they reach for rationales.

The FCC tried imposing similar rules about a year ago but ran into opposition in Congress — and a court ruling in April that it lacked jurisdiction to regulate the Internet at all. Undeterred, the FCC offered a sop to ISPs, allowing them to control congestion on their servers if they do so in a neutral fashion, neutralizing some opposition. That was enough to lead some proponents of more regulation to call this proposal “fake net neutrality,” which is true in a way but misses the point.

The point, for FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, is to assert FCC control now, before a Congress even less sympathetic to regulatory overreach assumes office in January. That compromises have made the full extent of FCC power a little vague is, if anything, a plus. It allows more scope for arbitrary rulings by the FCC, which has gone after broadcasters for wardrobe malfunctions and unintentional airings of naughty words, to shape a medium from which an increasing number of people get much of their news.

We may have to depend on the courts to rescue us from this regressive ruling.