Net Neutrality Is What Made the Internet a Libertarian Utopia

By Joe Campbell
October 30th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me][Forgive me, because this morning I am feeling expansive, and as such, I am omitting the usual qualifiers that constrain my opinions.]

The internet is the nearest thing to a libertarian utopia in the history of the world. It creates the closest thing we have seen to a frictionless market, a perfectly free market – and it is, for the most part, tax free. It allows the closest thing we have to maximum free speech and freedom from censorship. It allows every individual a platform to be themselves, or whatever else they choose to be. It circumvents and undermines governments that attempt to control it. It was created to allow for the maximum of freedom with a minimum of cost. It is resistant to centralized control – and makes it more and more possible to decentralize power. It has unleashed the forces of innovation and creativity that libertarian theory has always posited would come with freedom. It is perhaps the greatest force for expanding liberty in the world since the American revolution (or the fall of Communism.)

How did the internet develop this way? How did this profoundly destabilizing and decentralized network develop? Was it some Galtian genius who set up servers on cargo ships in international waters? Was it some giant corporation which decided it could profit from it? Not quite. And perhaps the story of how the internet developed helps explain why is it that liberals and not libertarians are the ones defending the internet.

Government engineers designed the internet as a network that was decentralized and thus “network neutral,” so as to be resistant to a nuclear assault on the United States. It was designed to be adaptable. Many academics worked on the project on behalf of the government – and were among the first to gain access to it. The large corporations of the time that controlled America’s communications grid – primarily AT&T – were resistant and attempted to strangle this competitor in its infancy, as they tried to discriminate against the data being sent over their lines. Corporations, attempting to derive maximum profit from their assets, also attempted to exert maximum control. AT&T only allowed “authorized” objects to connect to its network – and in fact people did not own their own phones. They licensed them from AT&T. Thus, it was only forceful intervention by the FCC that allowed the internet to develop, that opened up the communications network of the United States to innovation.

AT&T and other corporations, attempting to add to their profits, now seek to find another stream of revenue by undermining net neutrality, one of the foundational principles of the internet itself. They seek to introduce new frictions into this nearly frictionless market and to prevent it from becoming so easily a platform for individuals. Opponents of net neutrality claim that the several attempts by corporations to create policies that were contrary to net neutrality should be ignored because they did not succeed. (They did not succeed because the FCC shut them down.) They claim that there is no need to articulate clear principles about what net neutrality is because so far, the attempts to undermine it have failed. They claim government regulation regarding this would retard “innovation” – when it was government intervention that in fact created the possibility for such innovation.

This libertarian utopia was created by government engineers and protected from powerful corporations by forceful regulation.

Many corporate libertarians (such as Adam Thierer) have embraced the fallacy that the government is the only threat to individual liberties, or at least that the government is always a greater threat to liberty than any other force. They also often count corporations as “individuals” as they are considered such by the law. Thus they have a knee jerk opposition to regulation of any sort – even regulation meant to allow their own values to flourish. They favor freedom for corporations from government over freedom of individuals from corporations because they see the government as the primary evil in the world.

The are many different varieties of liberals, but the group of which I count myself believes that large corporations as well as government both are major threats to individual liberties. We favor smart regulation that does not restrict individuals, but instead restricts corporations who often use their power and clout to deprive individuals of rights. We agree with many libertarian attempts to constrain the government in the area of national security and attempts to make the government more transparent and accountable – but believe that government intervention in some form or another is often needed to restrain corporations from taking away the rights of individuals. We realize that the free markets exist not in spite of the government but because of it, because of a balance between governmental intervention and the rights of individuals and the rights of corporations.

[Image by sea legs snapshots licensed under Creative Commons.]

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