As embarrassing as it is to admit, we have only the vaguest idea about how this newfangled “internet” thingamajig you’re reading us on actually works. Which makes it hard for us to make sense of the big “net neutrality” controversy of the day.
The fuss all started when President Donald Trump’s choice of chairman of the Federal Communications convinced the other Republicans on its board to repeal a regulation imposed by President Barack Obama’s choice of FCC chairman and the rest of the board’s Democrats, and for most Americans these days that’s all they need to know to choose sides. We have no affection for Obama or Trump, though, and were thus obliged to consider all the arguments on their merit.
So far as we can glean from all the shouting about it, the “net neutrality” regulation required internet service providers to allow their customers access to all sites that post on the internet and at the same download speeds. Our understanding is that internet service providers are those people you pay every month for your internet, and are the “ISP” that you’re supposed to type into those pesky “pop-up” boxes that pop up whenever your internet thingamajig goes off-kilter. There are only so many of these very profitable companies, so far as we can tell, and according to all our friends who live out in the Kansas boondocks they’re lucky if the current regulations compel any of them to offer their services in such unprofitable areas, so it’s hard even for such instinctively de-regulating Republicans such as our ourselves to take a rooting interest in them.
Any liberal Democrats who accordingly choose sides must acknowledge, though, that all the “content providers” who are opposed to the de-regulation include some very profitable business interests as well. “Content providers” are apparently all the people who post on the internet, even such sympathetic pajama-clad mom and pop operations such as ourselves, but they’re also that Netflix outfit that’s suddenly as big a player in Hollywood as any studio or network, those Google guys who have a picture of your house with the garbage can still on the curb and are threatening to start driving your car for you, along with such nefarious characters as Microsoft and all those quickly conglomerating media giants.
Liberals love to decry the corrupting influence of big business on American politics, but they never seem to understand that the various big businesses have very varying interests. Federal regulators have their own interests in resolving the conflicts, which mostly derive from the interests of the political parties that appointed them, and with no one to root for but the lowly consumer it’s best to resolve these matters on the merits of the arguments. In this case the liberal argument is that unrestrained service providers will have an economic incentive to steer their customers to their preferred content providers, which seems reasonable enough, but the conservative counter-argument is that if they did so in a free market their customers would go elsewhere, and even in such a limited marketplace as the IPS biz is these days that also seems reasonable enough.
The Republican rule that regulations have a constraining effect on economic activity is self-obvious and usually reliable, but even such conservative souls as ourselves have to admit it’s not infallible.
We once co-authored a history of a local country and western radio station, which was for a long while the best got-danged country and western radio station in the whole wild world, and in the course of our exhaustive research we learned how the FCC first came into being back during the impeccably pro-business and Republican but un-fondly remembered administration of President Herbert Hoover. Radio was the newfangled mass communications thingamajig of the time, with all the savvy business interests of the time eagerly buying in, but a free market free-for-all proved unprofitably chaotic.
Without any regulation the radio stations such as the one we wrote about had an economic incentive to ramp up their wattage to a point it drowned out their competitors, who then had an economic incentive to ramp up their wattage, and even such a ruthless businessman as Hoover realized the government had to assure each content provider enough space on the AM dial to provide the lowly consumer with choices. A profitable industry resulted, Americans were suddenly communicating with one another from coast-to-coast, a lot of great American music and comedy and drama were aired along with a lot of crackpot commentary from right-wing and left-wing kooks, and even liberals will admit it was one of Hoover’s good ideas.
Since then the FCC has had a more decidedly mixed record, with both liberals and conservatives objecting at any given time, depending on which party is in power, and by now we won’t offer any guess about “net neutrality.” We still haven’t figured out how our car’s radio actually works, much less this even more newfangled “internet” thingamajig, yet our bewilderment only bolsters our faith that in the long run it really doesn’t matter.
By now we’ve seen enough to know that lawsuits are already being filed, the opposing profitable business interests are already laying out big money for lobbying, political parties come in and out of power, and that these slow-moving dinosaurs are always a step or two behind the faster pace of technological evolution. Right now someone far smarter than ourselves, and even smarter than those big business interests and federal regulators, is coming up with some newfangled thing that causes an even bigger fuss.
In the meantime we won’t worry that any of the internet service providers will discriminate against our content, which is very wordy and video-free and causes little strain on the bandwidth, and is too little-read to cause much controversy, and so long as we can watch YouTube and Netflix at a reasonable speed we have no dog in this fight.
— Bud Norman