Monday, August 10, 2009

Riding the Back of the Internet Public Utility Tiger

There is a remarkable interview with Robert McChesney, a founder of the Free Press organization, in the current edition of a publication called "The Bullet." The Bullet is published by the Socialist Project. The interview with McChesney, a long-time guru to those advocating more government control and regulation of the media, may be found here on the Socialist Project's website.

To appreciate – or I should say understand – the radical vision that undergirds Robert McChesney's views concerning media policy, you should read the entire interview. The extreme nature of his anti-capitalistic views ought to be at home in only a few places in the world, say, in Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, Castro's Cuba, or perhaps Putin's Russia.

Here I only want to focus attention on what McChesney has to say about network neutrality. Again, read the entire interview, but this is a key statement:

"The battle for network neutrality is to prevent the Internet from being privatized by telephone and cable companies. Privatization would give them control over the Internet, would allow these firms to privilege some information flows over others. We want to keep the Internet open. What we want to have in the U.S. and in every society is an Internet that is not private property, but a public utility. We want an Internet where you don't have to have a password and that you don't pay a penny to use. It is your right to use the Internet."

I understand that there are several definitions that one might put forward for "net neutrality," and that the fact that this is so has caused some to suggest, including those broadband providers that would be subject to net neutrality mandates, that net neutrality might be a relatively benign concept. Well sure, it all depends on the definition. But it would be a big mistake to ignore what a founder of Free Press says he wants net neutrality to mean – "an Internet that is not private property, but a public utility" and one in which "you don't pay a penny to use."

I have explained over and over again for many years that, for most of its proponents, net neutrality means regulation of the Internet as a common carrier or traditional public utility. In the FCC's broadband policy proceeding and other venues, Free Press acknowledges that this is its position. See my recent pieces here and here, and my reply comments in the FCC's broadband proceeding.

Professor McChesney also says this in the Socialist Project interview:

"[W]e have had much success around the net neutrality struggle. I expect within the next twelve months, we will have a formal law passed by U.S. Congress, signed by President Obama, and backed up by orders from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Network neutrality is well on its way to becoming the new law of the land."

It may be that Professor McChesney's vision of a government takeover and control of the Internet, running it as a public utility, will come to pass. If it does, this takeover will occur in the form of net neutrality mandates that, initially, may seem to some as benign as the net neutrality label itself. But the ultimate harm to consumers caused by diminished private sector investment and discouraged innovation will be substantial.

Finally, the risk to free speech posed by government policing Internet "neutrality" and "non-discrimination" regulations should be cause for concern to all those who appreciate that the First Amendment's free speech values are not promoted by government control of the means of speech. I sounded an early warning about the threat to the First Amendment posed by net neutrality mandates in this September 2006 Broadcasting & Cable commentary entitled "Net Neutrality and Free Speech," and at greater length in this 2007 law review article entitled "Net Neutrality Mandates: Neutering the First Amendment in the Digital Age."

There is an old Chinese proverb, one of President John F. Kennedy's favorites, that goes like this: "Those who ride the back of a tiger may find themselves inside."

There will be a tremendous push at the FCC and in Congress during the next year to implement net neutrality mandates and the Robert McChesney/Free Press vision of the Internet as a public utility. Those who underestimate the push – or who suppose they might be able to work out the "right type" or "a manageable type" of net neutrality mandates -- are riding the back of a tiger. And I think I know where they are likely, ultimately, to be found.