A recent court case struck down the FCC’s authority to enforce net neutrality, renewing concerns over the future of internet access. Most of us have probably been asking ourselves, “what impact will this have on Internet freedom?” “What exactly is net neutrality?” and, of course, “as a good libertarian how do I feel about net neutrality and the recent court ruling?”
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating against certain content or charging different rates to provide different types of content. Without net neutrality, Internet providers could charge their customers more money to access particular data or slow down sites at will. Besides being inconvenient, this is especially problematic because it gives Internet providers the ability to use this power to sabotage their competitors. For example, the Internet provider Comcast could charge users an additional fee to access Netflix, making Comcast’s own streaming service, Streampix, more appealing.
For years, the FCC has mandated that Internet providers offer customers service that adheres to the principles of net neutrality. But in January 2014, during the case of Verizon v. Federal Communications Commission, a judge ruled that the FCC does not have the authority to make this demand.
Initially, from a libertarian perspective, it would seem that ending government-regulated net neutrality is a good thing. Less government involvement means more freedom for corporations and businesses to provide the services consumers want. Consumers theoretically still have the right to choose which companies they do business with, and ideally these decisions will have some sort of impact on the services provided. If there is a high enough demand for an Internet provider that supplies services that stay true to the concept of net neutrality (and there certainly would be), then one of the providers would take advantage of it. The free market would solve our problem, preserving net neutrality without the need for government intervention and without awarding the FCC undue influence.
Unfortunately, this is not the reality that most consumers would face. In most areas of the country, one or two companies have a monopoly or a substantial market share in providing Internet services. Most people in America don’t actually have a choice of which company to use. The most alarming thing about this situation is the fact that Comcast’s and Time Warner’s monopolies are actually government granted and therefore aren’t disappearing any time soon.
The obvious solution would be to recognize that these monopolies are harmful enemies to the free market and stifle competition. The government can and should correct this market failure, but they probably won’t. Until consumers actually have a choice in who provides their Internet, the government has a responsibility to protect consumer interests. Essentially, we are dependent on the government to preserve net neutrality to protect us from corporations that only have excessive power because of the government.