The Spectacle Blog

But They Will Never Take… Our (Internet) Freedom!

By on 5.5.08 | 11:14AM

Art Brodsky of Public Knowledge has a long and thoughtful piece on net neutrality, written largely in response to a column I wrote on the issue for the Spectator, as well as to a Washington Times piece written by Dick Armey, the chairman of FreedomWorks (where I work). Brodsky claims that what's at stake is nothing less than "freedom," and, naturally, that freedom's on his side. Well, I (obviously) beg to differ. So as much as I'd love it if we could all be Mel Gibson from Braveheart, riding around with war-paint making stirring speeches about liberty, I suspect that our views just aren't compatible on this.

The main thing I'd take issue with is his characterization of the net as a public utility. He says that it's "well established that private property is subject to the law." That hardly, however, addresses whether or not it should be. And just because private property is subject to some law doesn't mean it's subject to any and all laws -- it's not a free pass for whatever regulation can be dreamed up. 

Brodsky also takes issue with the characterization of wireless networks as "private networks." 

It is privately owned network, but that’s different. A private network is what a company might have to connect its employees. Wireless has 65.2 million retail customers. That would be some humongous private network.

But the fact that it offers customers the opportunity to pay for some use of its property doesn't suddenly mean it gives up rights to make decisions about how that property is used. Think of a large retailer doing business on private property. Like a wireless network, it's privately owned. And like a wireless network, it allows the public to come into its store and make use of its property. But by doing so, the store doesn't suddenly become a public utility; they can still throw customers out for making trouble, deny them entry if they seem suspicious, and/or refuse to sell particular items if they think doing so will, for some reason, ultimately be better for business. That doesn't mean they should – and you'll notice that smart retailers rarely do so – but nor does it mean that these businesses should be legally prohibited from such activity. 

And that speaks to my final point, which is that Brodsky seems to assume that all of us who oppose neutrality mandates think neutrality is, plain and simple, a bad thing. That's simply not the case. Neutrality is, in most cases, a good thing, and if my ISP were to suddenly stop allowing access to my favorite websites, I'd be on the phone complaining in an instant – but to my ISP, not to a Congressman. Because it's there – in the market, not on the floor of Congress – that these debates ought to be solved. 

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