The phrase was opaque but vaguely appealing. Why would anyone want to repeal something called “net neutrality?” Neutral is inoffensive, right? So when the Federal Communications Commission debated whether to ditch the policy, many Americans joined in the energetic protests.
Recall how the U.S. Senate Democratic caucus warned that “If we don’t save net neutrality, you’ll get the internet one word at a time.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said that “The repeal of these protections has corporate greed and corruption written all over it.” Sen. Chuck Schumer predicted that without net neutrality, watching baseball on a smartphone would mean missing every other pitch.
Hotter heads even used the internet itself to threaten the murder of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s family. One sign memorably warned his children: “They will come to know the truth — Dad murdered democracy in cold blood.”
Net neutrality, a policy imposed by the Obama administration’s FCC in 2015, essentially said internet providers should make all content available at the same speed. Many liberal advocacy groups and Democratic officials warned that if the Trump administration’s FCC repealed net neutrality, cable companies and wireless carriers would speed up and improve the transmission quality of the websites they control, while slowing down rival data streams. What’s more, the providers surely would charge more to guarantee high speeds to affluent users, while slowing down data streams to those who couldn’t afford fast service.
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In other words, defenders of net neutrality said repealing the policy would imperil America’s disadvantaged and anti-establishment voices. They argued the piping of the internet should be viewed as akin to a regulated water or electric utility, and maintained as a neutral carrier.
We wrote in December 2017 that argument would make sense if technology had reached maximum progress and the main concern, as with an electric company, is keeping the lights on. In truth, though, digital technology is a new, evolving industry, more like robotics or bitcoins than water service. It thrives on market competition, consumer choice and, above all, unfettered innovation.
We argued the policy emphasis should be on encouraging scientific and commercial discoveries, while incorporating safeguards against exploitation of consumers. Our hunch was that rather than enticing internet providers to extort their customers, this deregulation would give private-sector companies incentives to improve speeds and services: Increased competition would be a greater spur to innovation than government fiat had been.
The FCC did vote to nix net neutrality, effective June 2018. A year-plus later, broadband download and upload speeds have quickened rather than slowed. Internet providers haven’t bifurcated service into different speeds for rich and poor households. Mobile networks, too, move data more swiftly than before. Broadband investment in better technology again has accelerated. And if baseball fan Chuck Schumer has missed a pitch, blame his bat speed, not his data speed.
Who knows, maybe the internet providers are lying in wait to pounce on their customers. Or perhaps that silence you heard in the last year is the sound of free-market incentives improving internet services at a steady pace.
Government regulation does have its place. But on the internet as in so many other realms, consumers’ demands and decisions are the most powerful regulators.