I had the pleasure last evening of speaking at an America's Future Foundation event titled "Should the Government Regulate the Net?" AFF consists of conservatives or libertarians in their 20s and 30s; in just over a year I'll turn 40 and I suppose will join America's Past. But I enjoyed the AFF crowd, which filled to standing-room a banquet room in the Rayburn House Office Building. I particularly enjoyed their probing questions. In my prepared remarks I sought to address some of the hysteria surrounding the net neutrality debate, and in so doing evoked the possibility of a mutant snakehead rising out of the Potomac River, walking down the Mall and devouring the US Capitol. That, I suspect, isn't likely to happen, but neither are the scary stories we often hear, as was made clear by a fellow panelist, Heritage's James Gattuso.
The other panelists, Alex Curtis of Public Knowledge and Frannie Wellings of Free Press, were far more restrained than much of the rhetoric coming from their organizations and the coalitions they've helped to form. For example, in arguing that no broadband ISP is likely to get away with discriminatory behavior for long, I pointed out the example of Cox Communications. Some of its customers said they were having trouble accessing Craig's List, and cried foul on blogs, suggesting all sorts of conspiracy theories. Cox says their security provider was having difficulty with the way Craig's List data arrived for Cox customers, and the companies are addressing the problem. That seems to me an example of the effectiveness of the blogosphere in keeping corporations in check, either if the behavior is intentionally egregious or in this case, in what appears to be a technical snafu.
But the Save the Internet coalition, whose web site is run by Free Press, has on its home page today, at the very top, a box titled "The Latest... Net Neutrality in Disguise." The blog entry that links to does actually point out Cox's explanation, but dismisses it and insists this was part of a diabolical plot by Cox. If it was, it wasn't a very effective one. And if every time someone employed with a corporation says (X) we are supposed to trust bloggers and believe the individual really said (-X), it's hard to imagine any constructive legislative approach other than to eliminate corporations entirely. I suspect Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!, pushing for net neutrality legislation, wouldn't go that far.
Fortunately the AFF audience wasn't inclined toward paranoia or hyperbole. They asked tough questions. They want a "free" Internet. But I believe all four of the panelists last night, and of course moderator Jerry Brito of Mercatus, want a "free" Internet, in the sense that we want to be able to access the content of our choice. Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell already put that forward as one of the Commission's Four Principles on net nuetrality, and the Commission has put those principles into action (see PFF's primer on net neutrality for more information).
The best question came at the end. The questioner noted that Alex and Frannie kept talking about the alleged evils of duopoly. What if there was more competition? Would they still support legislation? Alex proposed a sunset, with regulations leaving if there were, say, 5 competitors. The questioner tried to ask a follow-up, asking if placing the rules on ISPs to begin with wouldn't in fact retard the entry of new competitors. Jerry was trying to wrap up and cut him off, but I answered him anyway in the affirmative. I also warned against government trying to dictate how many competitors should be in a market, something markets should decide. I noted Reed Hundt tried to do that with spectrum auctions in the 1990s in an effort to create at least 6 national providers and numerous local ones, and the result was numerous companies overbid for spectrum and went bankrupt, and in at least one case a multibillion-dollar law suit entailed. The national wireless market has decreased to four but still seems hypercompetitive. But James had the best line, and appropriately it closed the event. He cautioned the audience of mostly Hill staff, "I'd be very careful when passing so-called temporary legislation," noting the telephone excise tax just came to an end after being initiated to fund the Spanish-American War. That line got a roar of approval.
Ever the cynic, I had to remind James after the event that as it was just a Treasury Department decision, the excise tax still could come back, as Congress hasn't formally repealed it. He agreed, further evidence of the danger of "temporary" legislation.