[Note: Image taken from aeaweb.org.]
Yesterday afternoon, as the work day winded down and thoughts and attention turned away from staring blankly at giant Excel files and towards more genial subjects, some of my coworkers began a passionate debate about net neutrality. As might be gathered by those who have seen my personal interactions in contentious situations, I smiled and politely and graciously listened to the discussion and was intrigued in what the people had to say. The two people talking were of distinct views, the first claiming that net neutrality was necessary in order to prevent internet companies from trying to “pick winners” and steer traffic towards favored sites and throttle less favored websites, with the second person believing that any government regulation of the internet and the behavior of our nation’s monopolistic high-speed internet service providers was illegitimate. This is not an uncommon sort of debate–to be sure I have witnessed many permutations of this debate in many areas of life. What was most striking about this debate was the fact that the people involved explicitly brought up the issue of trust, in which it was asked who one trusted more–our government or the companies who provide access to the internet. The heat of the debate is based at least in part on an understanding that this is not merely an academic issue .
In this debate, as in so many others like it, I feel torn because I trust neither businesses nor governments to have my best interests at heart. I happen to believe that internet service providers will try to pick winners, making it difficult to view some parts of the internet and slowing down those who view websites from rival networks or who present perspectives that they do not want to encourage you to look at. It does not take a great deal of imagination to see the internet being treated the way cable television is, with a fairly unimpressive basic plan and higher speed connections to the websites that one wants to go to requiring premium upgrades. That I am not fond of this expensive and wasteful a la carte approach should be obvious even given the lack of tone present in written communication. On the other hand, though, I scarcely have more trust in the neutrality of the web being preserved by governments, not least since governments around the world have been most responsible for throttling the internet, blocking websites that offend their delicate sensibilities, and seeking to jail and punish noisy bloggers whose viewpoints are contrary to the official story. Both the horrors of intrusive government regulation as well as the horrors of unrestrained corporate thievery are ones I can see as likely and possible.
In short, I do not believe there is a genuine net neutrality. This is largely due to the fact that I do not believe there is neutrality at all. Every position is itself a stance, and even the decision not to take a stand against something is itself a stance. We cannot avoid making moral choices that have deep implications, and the question of the infrastructure of the internet and how it is to be viewed is no more neutral than any other number of similar problems that involve questions of how the commons is to be regulated for the common good. If we could trust businesses to act with restraint and make modest profits from their investments in infrastructure in order to improve the experience of everyone with the internet, there would be no problem with fairly loose self-regulation. If government could be trusted to encourage freedom and avoid its own crony capitalism and its own hostility towards outsider perspectives, then even fairly tight regulation could be tolerated without fear that regulation would cross the line and become intrusive and oppressive. In both cases, though, trust is lacking. We know that neither businesses nor governments have a particularly good record when it comes to building infrastructure and providing quality services for the common good. Both sides of this particular debate have an interest in narrowing the playing field to preferred alternatives, and both have a strong temptation to pick winners and losers by virtue of whatever power they are allowed to have.
What are we to do then? I do not know. I do not know who can be trusted more, or less, and so where the balance between freedom and regulation should lie. My own native inclination is to keep the regulation simple and to provide both for the building and maintenance of infrastructure that allows for a high degree of competition and a low barrier of entry, and that strongly prohibits with stiff penalties either businesses or governments from participating in favoritism that would create an unequal playing field. But who can be trusted as an intermediary between people and the faceless bureaucrats who would regulate the internet or between people and the wicked corporate interests who would exploit an entirely privatized commons or who would help preserve a wall of separation between crony capitalism and corrupt government interests? Can anyone be trusted in our corrupt age to engage as a fair dealer in a place where the temptation to be unjust and unfair is so strong?
 See, for example: