Should the Internet Become a “Public Utility”?

Two hands tied together using blue cord

Whenever any politician talks in terms of “common sense,” it’s best to run for your life. Or in this case, for your freedom of speech (to those who still even care about it.)

Mere days after a decisive election defeat, President Obama has come out in favor of turning the Internet into the equivalent of a public utility. It’s referred to as “net neutrality.” From what I can tell, net neutrality appears to be the Internet equivalent of “leveling the playing field” so that all Internet speeds are equal.

Fairness and “level download playing fields” on the Internet. What could be wrong with that, right? Obama is calling it “common sense,” paving the way for him to cajole the FCC in any way he can to bypass Congress and do his bidding, even if Congress doesn’t agree.

The problem with this proposal — the overriding problem outweighing any real or alleged benefit — is that it treats private activity on the Internet as a publicly owned utility. In other words: Anything you purchase, sell, say or write on the Internet is — ultimately — under the purview of the federal government. The government might or might not elect to impose that authority on you. It can’t control everyone, and probably won’t even try. But the point is: The government can do so, if it wishes, at least if the FCC unilaterally turns the Internet into a public utility, which is what Obama is pushing.

Net neutrality, like any government intervention in the marketplace, will help some businesses at the expense of others. But it will do nothing to help the consumer in the long run, nor probably in the short run, either. What it will accomplish is to give the FCC — i.e. the federal government — more authority and power over individuals than it already has. It’s the power to say (and back up with force): We own you.

Right now, the issue is framed as purely a technical and commercial one. Netflix reportedly favors this government intervention in the marketplace, because they see it as serving their commercial interests. AT&T, on the other hand, opposes it. This leads most people to assume it’s a technical legal and business matter, having little or nothing to do with them.

Both the “pro” and “con” arguments are framed in purely technical and Big Business terms. This leads most of us to glaze over in indifference. “It doesn’t matter to me. Heck, the government can pay for everything on the Internet, for all I care. Just so I get my service.” I sadly but honestly believe this is where most Americans’ heads are on the subject, assuming they’ve given it any thought at all. Obama knows this, and he exploits it gleefully as any two-bit politician can be expected to do.

Yet will any of the glazed-over and indifferent majority take into account what a government transformation of the entire Internet into a public utility will actually look like?

We won’t know until we’re there, of course. But once we’re there, it might be too late.

If you’re a liberal, you’re probably fine with this proposal because your guy Obama is in favor of it. “He won’t do anything to harm my free speech,” is probably what Obama supporters think, and they will defend what Obama does no matter what.

Conservatives and Republicans rightly call attention to the “chilling effect” such government ownership of the Internet-as-a-whole will have. Of course, if conservatives and Republicans ever regain control of the executive branch, one wonders if they’d be so much against it. At that point, after all, control of the Internet could be utilized to impose their political or social agendas on freedom of speech. Where would that leave the liberals and progressives who now give Obama unqualified support to basically do whatever he wants, so long as it angers Republicans?

Right now, it’s largely a free-for-all on the Internet. And it should remain that way. Without freedom of speech — leaving aside obvious needs to prosecute violent criminals and child molesters — the Internet isn’t worth anything. “Chilling” is the right term for the very idea of government getting involved at all. reports: On Monday, Obama waded into the fray and gave a major boost to Internet activists by saying the FCC should explicitly ban any “paid prioritization” on the Internet. Obama also suggested that the FCC reclassify consumer broadband as a public utility under the 1934 Communications Act. That would mean the Internet would be regulated more heavily in the way phone service is.

Notice what Obama is after here: “Paid prioritization.” This is his unreformed socialism talking. Obama resents the idea that there should be any private ownership in the Internet at all. Internet connectivity is not something you purchase, he’s suggesting. It’s something that’s just a fact of life, and the government should take ownership of that technological capacity so that it may distribute it as it — the government — sees fit.

Can you imagine anything less “neutral” than this? Calling a government takeover of the Internet “neutrality” would be like calling a government takeover of health care a “call to innovation,” or a government tax increase as a “call to economic growth.” It’s such an overtly wrong and stupid idea that you can only conclude that people promoting it have other agendas in mind.

Yes, companies like Netflix undoubtedly have their own business interests in mind by calling for more government control. They’ll eventually get what they deserve, because just as criminals always turn on each other, co-conspirators in government regulation and control ultimately turn on each other, as well. And while there will be businesses who oppose such a government takeover, I’ll be truly stunned if any do so in the name of moral and Constitutional principle, as opposed to some narrow or largely irrelevant business concern. As for the Republicans who now run the Congress — people like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell — I wish you luck if you seriously think these people have the will (or even the desire) to fight Obama on much of anything, other than perhaps abortion or gay marriage.

I realize many people will say, “No worries. The Supreme Court will ensure that turning the Internet into a public utility will never violate freedom of speech.” How well did the Supreme Court work out in overturning Obamacare, despite having a Republican and conservative majority? And, more than that: By what right do we impose this policy on the country’s Internet providers, consumers and individual citizens’ freedom of speech if we have to count on the Supreme Court to overturn its inherent unconstitutionality?

I don’t doubt there’s plenty of room for improvement in the way Internet service is provided. But an advocate of freedom would support proposals that take us in the direction of privatizing and deregulating the area of technology. Obama is attempting not merely to regulate it further — but to hand over literal ownership of the entire Internet to the federal government.

And he calls it “common sense.” Like I said, run for your life.

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