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The Day Internet Freedom Died

Progress Snapshot
Release 5.8 September 2009

by Adam Thierer and Berin Szoka*

[Originally published in Forbes.com on September 22, 2009]

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There was a time, not so long ago, when the term "Internet Freedom" actually meant what it implied: a cyberspace free from over-zealous legislators and bureaucrats. For a few brief, beautiful moments in the Internet's history (from the mid-90s to the early 2000s), a majority of Netizens and cyber-policy pundits alike all rallied around the flag of "Hands Off the Net!" From censorship efforts, encryption controls, online taxes, privacy mandates and infrastructure regulations, there was a general consensus as to how much authority government should have over cyber life and our cyber liberties. Simply put, there was a "presumption of liberty" in all cyber matters.

Those days are now gone; the presumption of online liberty is giving way to a presumption of regulation. A massive assault on real Internet freedom has been gathering steam for years and has finally come to a head. Ironically, victory for those who carry the banner of "Internet Freedom" would mean nothing less than the death of that freedom.

We refer to the gradual but certain movement to have the federal government impose "neutrality" regulation for all Internet actors and activities--and in particular, to Monday's announcement by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski that new rules will be floated shortly. "But wait," you say, "You're mixing things up! All that's being talked about right now is the application of 'simple net neutrality,' regulations for the infrastructure layer of the net." You might even claim regulations are not really regulation but pro-freedom principles to keep the net "free and open."

Such thinking is terribly short-sighted. Here is the reality: Because of the steps being taken in Washington right now, real Internet Freedom--for all Internet operators and consumers, and for economic and speech rights alike--is about to start dying a death by a thousand regulatory cuts. Policymakers and activists groups are ramping up the FCC's regulatory machine for a massive assault on cyber liberty. This assault rests on the supposed superiority of common carriage regulation and "public interest" mandates over not just free markets and property rights, but over general individual liberties and freedom of speech in particular. Stated differently, cyber collectivism is back in vogue--and it's coming very soon to a computer near you!

"Net Neutrality" proponents insist, however, that only regulation can save us from nefarious corporate schemers out to quash our rights and destroy all innovation. Over the last decade, a cabal of activist-minded cyber-law professors have successfully turned the world of Internet policy upside down by persuading an entire generation of law students, policymakers and a number of large Internet companies that "Internet Freedom" means the very opposite of what it used to mean. Borrowing tactics that would have made Orwell proud, they have convinced many in the public and the policymaking community that the old Internet Freedom is slavery, in that we are all just tools of Corporate Big Brother. Thus, they offer us a new Internet Freedom: Neutrality über alles! Their freedom, as in Orwell's Oceania, is not a freedom from the State, but a gleaming utopia that can only be created by the State.

We see the triumph of this thinking with Chairman Genachowski's proclamation that, "This is not about government regulation of the Internet. It's about fair rules of the road for companies that control access to the Internet. We will do as much as we need to do, and no more, to ensure that the Internet remains an unfettered platform for competition, creativity and entrepreneurial activity."

Yet, no matter how vociferously the proponents of FCC-enforced "neutrality" insist that it is not regulation they seek, the reality is that the steps they counsel would put the FCC in the driver's seat for a host of Internet economic and social issues. Internet companies and technologies will come to be regulated like crusty old "common carriers" and broadcast stations that must serve some amorphous "public interest."

But as the FCC's long history of meddling in media and communications markets makes clear, micro-management of dynamic markets is a recipe for economic stagnation, strangled innovation and speech controls. And the path to regulation does not end with infrastructure providers. The specter of neutrality haunts not just today's Internet service providers but also all high-tech innovators, like Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and their descendants. Although the FCC's original mandate was mostly to deal with spectrum "interference"--something that could have been, and actually was being, dealt with using property rights--the agency quickly expanded its mission: Broadcast regulation metastasized into government control over speech, innovation, campaign advertising and a "fairness doctrine" for news coverage. Likewise, Net Neutrality mandates will give rise to neutrality mandates for other areas.

The slope is slippery and we're already heading down it: The push for "Wireless Neutrality" is already well under way, and the FCC is currently investigating Apple's rejection of the Google Voice application for the iPhone. Thus, "Net Neutrality" leads to "Device Neutrality" and "Application Neutrality," but the same rationale would apply equally to any circumstance in which access to a communications platform is supposedly limited to a few "gatekeepers." Some academics have already proposed a "Federal Search Commission" to deal with accusations of "search bias." At the end of the day, we'll need a full-blown Federal Information Commission with a Search Bureau, a Cloud Computing Division and several other ministries to micro-manage the many flavors of neutrality regulation.

The path back toward real Internet freedom lies in restoring the presumption of liberty enshrined in the First Amendment, which is not a sword with which the government can ensure fairness, diversity or openness, but a shield against government meddling in media, communications and online markets.

* Adam Thierer (athierer@pff.org) is a Senior Fellow with The Progress & Freedom Foundation and the Director of its Center for Digital Media Freedom. Berin Szoka (bszoka@pff.org) is a Senior Fellow with PFF and the Director of PFF’s Center for Internet Freedom. The views expressed in this report are their own, and are not necessarily the views of the PFF board, fellows or staff.

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