My colleague, Berin Szoka, worries about 195 independent countries each regulating the Internet:
[I]t's likely to cause, at the very least, many companies to limit access to their sites or services by persons from countries with burdensome regulatory approaches. Even if those foreign laws are well-intentioned and laudable... the result could be to balkanize Internet services.
Szoka argues that Americans are better off because Congress or the federal courts can override burdensome regulation by the States. Others are worried too, and not just about the Internet. Financial regulators have long sought to harmonize regulations across borders, with the European Union leading the way. Szoka would prefer less regulation to harmonization, but if local regulators will not stay their hands voluntarily, a single set of regulations seems preferable to many overlapping, and often contradictory, regulatory regimes.
Yet the question remains of what these regulations should be. The Nobel Laureate Friedrich von Hayek argued that the perfect laws cannot be designed but must evolve over time through a process of trial and error. Americans are better off, not because the federal government can override regulation but because the States are, as Justice Louis Brandeis put it, "laboratories of democracy." Americans have the benefit of trying 50 different regulatory approaches and allowing the market to decide which approach works best.
One could easily look at the Internet today and see that the many different standards and protocols in use are wasteful and burdensome. Yet the many competing standards, and the continuous innovation that drives them, are the engine of growth in the Net economy. Picking a single standard and enforcing that standard would cause innovation to stagnate. Likewise, the burden imposed by competing regulatory regimes is outweighed by the benefits of innovation in the market for law.
Rather than creating a need for standardization in the law, globalization makes regulatory competition more effective. Some companies will choose not to offer content or services in countries with burdensome regulations but this will send a strong signal to those countries to change their regulations. Countries with effective regulations will be able to attract businesses more easily thanks to the web and other countries will have more incentive to replicate the most successful rules.
Competition is likely to lead to less burdensome regulation, so much so that many advocates for harmonization are concerned about a "race to the bottom." Competition can override the preferences of governments - websites around the world are hosted on American servers because the U.S. has stronger Free Speech protections - but not of consumers. Evidence from financial markets (subscription) has found that consumers are attracted to jurisdictions that offer strong protection of property rights: both from fraud and deceptive business practices, and from special interests who can corrupt the law to their own ends.
The Internet has, and will continue to, create new challenges for lawmakers which even the brightest economists and legal scholars will not be able to answer. As tempting as it is to assume we have all the answers, be it less regulation or better regulation, only trial and error can tell us for sure which approach is best.