The Public Policy

Public Know Nothings

Congress should keep its hands off that "series of tubes."

By 4.28.08

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Congressmen are notoriously confused by technology issues. A few years ago, Sen. Ted Stevens took up the issue of net neutrality. Then the chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, he explained to a no-doubt rapt Congressional audience that the Internet was 1) "not a big truck" but 2) was instead "a series of tubes."

There are many things which legislators tend to understand -- taxing, spending, campaigning, trucks -- but the intricacies of modern technology are not always among them. So I cringed when I heard last year that NARAL, a hard-line pro-abortion group, had a text message blast rejected by wireless provider Verizon on the grounds that Verizon reserves the right to refuse to send controversial messages -- of any political persuasion -- over its system.

Surely, I thought, this would lead to calls for regulatory action, and surely confusion would ensue. Never mind that after a swift and loud public outcry, Verizon reversed its decision the very next day. A controversy touching so many obvious hot-buttons would undoubtedly touch a regulator's deepest urges.

And sure enough, with the help of some liberal advocacy groups, the FCC has begun to mull the business of texting and rejecting. Several of these groups, led by the left-leaning tech advocacy organization Public Knowledge, recently submitted a petition demanding that the FCC issue a ruling that blockages are illegal.

BUT WHAT THEY'RE calling for is hardly safe text. Instead, it's governmental bullying. Their rallying cry is that Verizon's action amounted to "censorship."

But was it? Most people would not think it censorship for a party host to ask an unruly, argumentative guest to settle down, nor for their local coffee shop to place rules on what bulletins might or might not be posted on its cork board. These are private actors that have a right and, indeed, often an obligation to watch over what is said and done on their property.

The same goes for Verizon. Just because its network exists largely in the wireless ether doesn't make it any less property. Verizon, like any property owner, needs to reserve the right to manage the content that flows over its network.

Believing this doesn't mean one must endorse all corporate decisions to block content. It was public pressure that forced Verizon to lift its block -- and that's just how it should be. That this pressure was effective in just 24 hours, while Congress and the FCC have still yet to rule, suggests that public scrutiny is a far more effective regulator than the government

Yet Public Knowledge and its neutrality-loving brethren persist in clamoring for FCC action. They want to treat wireless carriers as public utilities rather than as private property owners. It's a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of widely used private networks.

THE REAL ISSUE at play here is that old favorite of Senator Stevens, network neutrality. Network neutrality has been making the legislative and bureaucratic rounds for years. It's been the subject of a lot of talk but rather little action.

That's not to say that nothing has been done. Net neutrality has been "enshrined in principle" at the FCC. Thankfully, federal regulators tend to take their "principles" about seriously as politicians do their campaign promises.

But this is Washington, so debate must go on. At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on net neutrality last Tuesday, the testimony advocating neutrality veered from the irritating to the unexpected to the wholly irrelevant.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said that no additional regulations are required. The FCC simply ought to "enforce the principles it has already adopted," which, he made sure to emphasize, they really do have the authority to do. Never underestimate a bureaucracy's willingness to tout its own authority.

The most erroneous and absurd bit of testimony came from TV actress Justine Bateman -- known for playing Mallory Keaton on Family Ties. Not only did she insist that net neutrality "is not government regulation," she also declared that not mandating net neutrality would be akin to allowing telecom companies to engage in "private taxation," a notion so baffling that it's actually impressive. I expected her to follow this with calls for aggressive pacifist warfare, but instead she added the following:

The Internet has been defined by innovation; the Internet itself was a product of American innovation. Google was created in a garage by two college students. EBay was created by a hobbyist. How successful might those two sites have been without the freedoms we enjoy on the Internet today?

In fact, not only were all of these companies born in an era with no mandated net neutrality, it's utterly unclear that a lack of neutrality would've impeded them in any way whatsoever. Of course, this was the same hearing in which the Christian Coalition sided with abortion rights group NARAL, so trying to make sense of it all is likely a fruitless endeavor.

This issue does bring about strange bedfellows. In addition to Verizon's text message policy, the other major complaint during the hearing was regarding Comcast's policy of Internet "network management" -- slowing some bandwidth heavy applications during peak periods in order to make sure a few users don't tie it up for everyone.

Now, I am on record as a Comcast grumbler. In general, I consider the company to be the lowest form of corporate life on Earth. But they are largely in the right to manage their network as they see fit. The best way to foster freedom on the net is for Washington's armies of bureaucratic busybodies to keep their hands off it.

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