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    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Locke, Freud and the F.C.C.
January 7, 2011 - 12:15pm

Mr. John Galt and I have been engaged in an interesting discussion about rights; if you are curious, please take a look at the last couple of posts and the comments that follow.

It might be worth making a connection here between that discussion and some recent national Internet policy issues. The F.C.C. neutrality matter is a case on point.

So what do Locke, Freud and the net neutrality have in common? [Again, for the Locke (rights) and Freud reference, see the previous post/comments.]

Short answer: no matter how one defines political philosophy, human nature is at play over terrain that matters, and in this case, the terrain that matters is the Internet. For all of the Jerry Barlow utopian feelings that the early Internet experience evoked in users, "cyberspace" is no different from physical space as a relatively fixed resource. (Yes, I have heard of Moore's law, but that does not alter the essential fact that it costs money to develop new technologies, including those that decrease space and increase size, as well as to produce, market and partake of that world, and where there is money, there is a contest for it, and for the power it represents.)

John makes a really good point in his comment to me when he notes that the term "neutrality" has become gnarled. Undoubtedly he is correct, and there is no better evidence than that both sides of the debate have appropriate the term. Perhaps both sides have come to it honestly; perhaps the corporate interests have done so with the instrumental attempt to confuse users and confound the debate. John suggests a new term, and that is not a bad idea. So let me give it a try, with nothing too original, and to those who embraced the notion originally, this suggestion is a marketing disaster, if not an anathema: Regulation.

Why the controversial, boring term "regulation?" Because that is what the original "net neutrality" advocates advocated: government rules to prohibit the market forces that owned, and controlled as a matter of their "rights," the ability to set their own rules, mostly about costs, that could, or at least are perceived, to have a potential effect on content.

It does not stretch the imagination to appreciate why those corporate interests replied, more or less, "Hey, hang on a minute, the Internet flourished without regulation, government regulation is the last thing anyone wants or needs and besides, the truest form of 'net neutrality' would be to have no rules, no regulation." That argument makes sense to me! Where I differ is in the application of it. As a theory, it works. In practice, I am not so sure.

And so the historian in me takes over. Railroads, banks, securities, food and drugs, labor, the environment, airlines ... hardly a definitive list of commerce that began in the "free market," (for the sake of this argument I will forego a critique of that concept, but let me simply say, it never was and never could be entirely a market "free" of government influence ... it always was and always will be a matter of kind and degree, after all, we do not live in an anarchy, but anyway ...) and for one reason or another, usually stemming around inefficiency and/or abuse, found at least some aspect of its business regulated by the federal government. Have there been abuses on the government's end? Almost certainly! Freud rears his cigar-smoking head again! It is human nature and that old thing about power ... But the solution never seems to me to abandon all hope, but to refine and calibrate appropriate quality and quantity of regulation when and where necessary. The key is the test: public welfare ... and the trick is to be sure everyone is aware of the assumption upon which that notion is defined. [Back to the blog: Rights and the General Welfare of Society.]

What about the F.C.C.? I support the approach that the agency is taking. It is stepping out to assert its authority to regulate in this area, which is a controversial step indeed, especially in the wake of the Comcast decision. It is also asserting if not the term "network neutrality" then the concept, and that is in light of the Brand X decision that left took away the common carrier obligations of I.S.P.s ... and ultimately the protections that designation might have provided for consumers. Some may say the F.C.C. is tilting at windmills. I say that they are taking a cautious but courageous stand. They have poised themselves for action in the right circumstances.

The smartest move is to have made no specific ruling as of yet. Smart not merely because of the questions surrounding their authority to do so, but because consumers do not yet have the evidence of how or in what way regulation would be to their favor. It would appear that the threat of it, to date, is restraining industry from doing anything that would ruffle consumer feathers overbearingly. So instead of pushing the boundary and getting pushed back by the government, industry is regulating itself. And that is the ideal place for us all to be: supporting a free market that acts responsibly. Who knows? Maybe industry has some historians on staff too. And Freudians to boot. Because without the fear of regulation, without the existence of the F.C.C. you can bet your boots, history would repeat itself.

Next week: 2011: The Year of Privacy


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