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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Net Neutrality for Dummies

The concept of “Net Neutrality” lies at the heart of the Federal Communication Commission’s ongoing efforts to regulate Internet access. To its opponents, Net Neutrality is an Orwellian euphemism for regulatory overreach, couched in appealing language about “the freedom of the Internet.”

At issue is the limited bandwidth available for accessing web sites. More bandwidth means faster access, but Internet speed is a commodity—there’s only so much of it available to go around. The amount of available bandwidth has increased exponentially over the past 20 years, to the point where today’s cell phones are loading Web pages faster than yesterday’s computers. But yesterday’s computers were mostly shuffling simple pages of text with a few small images, not gigabytes of online gaming, music and video. Demand kept pace with supply as the power of the Internet grew. Big Government is, once again, promising to overrule the laws of supply and demand.

Net Neutrality covers a range of regulatory proposals designed to force Internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all web traffic as equal, instead of selling precious bandwidth at varying price and performance levels. The key word is “force.” Massive new regulatory powers would be needed to impose Net Neutrality on companies that currently labor under the delusion that they own the infrastructure they have created, and can therefore rent it out as they see fit.

The Federal Communications Commission has spent the last several years looking for a blunt instrument it can use to enforce Net Neutrality. At one point, they were toying with the idea of classifying the entire Internet as a telephone monopoly, and activating 130-year-old rules to regulate it. A massive, bipartisan backlash in Congress scuttled that tactic.

Net Neutrality is a solution in search of a problem. The reader has probably not encountered much difficulty accessing even the smallest web sites. Big sites that deliver huge amounts of multimedia content with blistering speed pay extra for their performance, but this happily leaves ISPs with plenty of lower-cost extra bandwidth to sell. Net Neutrality would be movement, at gunpoint, away from efficient Internet capitalism, and into dreary online socialism. Imagine what would happen to Internet traffic if ISPs were required to treat obscure cat blogs the same way they handle Fox News, CNN and Netflix.

Poor user experience

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