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COMMENTARY: There's nothing neutral about net neutrality

columnist Rob Port

MINOT, N.D. — A lack of government intervention and regulation has generally served the internet well.

Not perfectly. That the internet is used to facilitate all manner of crime from terrorism to child pornagraphy should disturb us all. But on the whole the internet has become a boon to humanity mostly because, outside of involvement in developing the early iterations of this global network, our government has mostly stayed out of the way.

Unfortunately, the proponents of inaccurately named "net neutrality" regulations are insisting on giving the feds a big, fat foot in the door.

The idea behind these Obama-era rules, we're told, is to ensure that internet service providers treat all types of data transfers on their network the same.

We're told of nightmare scenarios where some nefarious ISP might slow or block access to a service like Netflix while allowing free access to Hulu because the latter paid off the ISP while the former did not.

Could that happen absent government regulation? Maybe. But the answer isn't government-imposed "neutrality."

Because there's nothing "neutral" about giving the government authority to tell private companies how to run their private networks.

And because we know this sort of government intervention stifles innovation.

Prior to 1982 telecom giant AT&T had a monopoly on American phone service. A monopoly made possible by a 1913 agreement with the federal government called the Kingsbury Commitment which had the feds agreeing not to break up AT&T's monopoly while AT&T agreed to become a regulated utility.

From that stemmed government-imposed requirements on access to phone service, including rate controls. All Americans were to get equal access to phone service.

Sound familiar?

The result was decades where Americans saw little progress toward improving phone service. We didn't see the beginning of the end to rotary phones until the 1970's. Innovations like caller ID and call waiting didn't come around until even decades after that.

This lethargy is directly attributable to government "neutrality" requirements which made it so AT&T couldn't make new innovations available until they could make them available for everyone.

Progress toward the internet we know and love today was slowed by this state of affairs. Some of you might remember this 9600 bps dial up modems we hooked to our computers decades ago. That speed was limited in part because it was the lowest common denominator. The fastest speed possible on all telephone wires.

Even if you lived in a place with newer wires, where faster connections might be possible, it couldn't be allowed lest it run afoul of government neutrality rules.

Here in 2017 the proponents of "net neutrality" talk about fairness, but we should remember that fairness is a double edged sword.

I'd rather the internet be what it has been for most of its life. A decentralized network of services all competing and cooperating with one another at the same time.

Better that, with all its imperfections, than the monolithic incompetence of government regulation.

Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort

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