US president-elect Donald Trump will appoint a new Federal Communications Commission chair in January. That chair will likely be inclined to undo the FCC’s 2015 “Net Neutrality” power grab and, to at least some degree, let markets settle how bandwidth gets priced and who pays.
Good. For the most part I’m no Trump fan, but Net Neutrality was a bad idea from the beginning — half crony capitalism, half stalking horse for a future Internet censorship regime, all economic nonsense. If he nips Net Neutrality in the bud, Trump will have done America at least one favor.
What’s wrong with Net Neutrality? To explain, let’s start with one irrefutable fact: There’s no such thing as free bandwidth.
Every bit of Internet data entering or leaving your household flows through some kind of “pipe” — a cable TV or telephone line, a satellite or cellular signal — and those pipes cost money to create, maintain and expand. As people find more, newer and bulkier things to push through them they’re going to have to get bigger or the Internet as we know it will grind to a halt, the 24/7 equivalent of a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour.
Who pays for that infrastructure? Someone has to, contra the fantasies of current FCC head Tom Wheeler. At Wheeler’s legally dubious urging, the FCC decreed that Internet Service Providers can’t charge bandwidth hogs (such as Netflix and Youtube) extra for the privilege of clogging up the pipes. Under Net Neutrality, all “legal content” (and creators/consumers) of same must be treated equally.
The “legal content” provision alone is incredibly dangerous. It puts the FCC’s unaccountable bureaucracy in the position of deciding what content is legal and what isn’t. Under such a regime, eventually corporate lobbyists would show up demanding, and probably getting, illegalization of popular non-proprietary data formats (for example, Torrent files) “to combat piracy.”
Net Neutrality also means that your grandma who reads email and looks at pictures of cats will be forced to subsidize your Ultra HD movie habit with higher base monthly fees instead of you throwing an extra buck a month at Netflix to cover bandwidth payments it negotiates with the ISPs. It’s either that or the imposition of data caps with substantial charges for high bandwidth usage, which some ISPs are already going to.
Putting an end to the Net Neutrality scam would be at least one fine feather in Trump’s legacy cap.
Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.