Every so often you run into a piece that’s so dense with good sense that you are hard-put to pull out appropriate teaser quotes. That’s the way it is with Lawrence Lessig’s recent tear on net neutrality. He vents his frustration with the sort of nonsense that tries to justify handing the internet over to the corporations that own the last mile wires by pretending that the internet succeeded because of its “unregulated” environment. ‘Tain’t so as Lessig points out:
…when the Internet first reached beyond research facilities to the masses, it did so on regulated lines — telephone lines. Had the telephone companies been free of the “heavy hand” of government regulation, it’s quite clear what they would have done — they would have killed it, just as they did when Paul Baran first proposed the idea in 1964. It was precisely because they were not free to kill it, because the “heavy hand[ed]” regulation required them to act neutrally, that the Internet was able to happen, and then flourish.
So Waltzman’s wrong about the Internet’s past. But he’s certainly right about what a mandated net neutrality requirement would be. It would certainly be a “complete step backward for the Internet” — back to the time when we were world leaders in Internet penetration, and competition kept prices low and services high.
Good stuff, and follow that link in the quoted text for a long, calm dissection of how the internet was born in government research and forethought and first thrived under mandatory “open access” rules. Also don’t miss the classic little logical structure he builds at the end of his article. It’s always a pleasure to see the door shut so firmly on nonsense.
Lessig takes, in my judgment, one small misstep: he makes the too-simple claim that it is broadband’s nature as infrastructure that makes it an inappropriate place to rely on “markets.” The market issue is more profoundly economic than that. Happily a writer on techdirt rises to the occasion:
That’s rather simplified, but is mostly right. The issue isn’t that it’s infrastructure — but that the infrastructure is a natural monopoly, where the effort to build more than one of the same style of infrastructure does more harm than good, and the value is only in having the same infrastructure reach far and wide (network effects).
That’s just right…Markets are almost always the right solution for economic problems. But natural monopolies are the classic example of a situation where relying simply on markets is a recipe for disaster. It’s not that “infrastructure” is a problem for competitive solutions, it is rather that we call some enterprises infrastructure and expect government construction or subsidy/regulation precisely because private providers can’t economically provide a service which the community finds valuable because of its network effects. –The roads are a good example.