Net Neutrality: God Save the Internet Village Green!

David Sims : First Coffee
David Sims
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Net Neutrality: God Save the Internet Village Green!

By David Sims

The news as of the first coffee this morning, and the music should be The Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society, but iTunes doesn't have it yet. The government should regulate such things:

First Coffee almost feels like John Henry Cardinal Newman here, who had to write one of the classics of Western thought, Apologia Pro Vita Sua in the 19th century to defend his conversion from the Anglican Church to Roman Catholicism.

While not giving up my libertarian preferences in favor of government interventionism, I do feel at odds with my usual anti-government, anti-regulation drinking buddies on the net neutrality issue, as has been pointed out to me by those who normally agree with me and have accused me of all manner of perfidy, of desiring half-wit government bureaucrats controlling the Internet and moving towards a Soviet Russian-style government hamstringing of the free markets.

It's particularly risible to find phone companies complaining about how the government should keep their noses out of phone business, the very same phone companies which wouldn't exist today had the government not stepped in and busted up AT&T's monopoly. Reminds me of the French squeaking about American power, without which les grenouilles are die Frösche today. Fine. Next time, Pierre, you're on your own. Hope your grandchildren enjoy being difda.

At the same time I find myself on the same side as those you normally move away from in airport seating lounges, such as Daily Kos, People for the American Way, and other cretin life forms whose thinking is only as deep as "Hey, if it's bad for President Bush I'm all for it!"

So what's going on here? Maybe we can combine an analysis of the issues driving both sides of the net neutrality debate with the historical concept of The Commons. Not having the brainpower of Cardinal Newman -- few do -- such an analogy is the best First Coffee can offer.

In civil society, laws should represent the way things should be, and they're noticed to the extent that they don't conform to the society's natural instincts. Nobody particularly notices a law requiring people not to steal that which belongs to others, we feel that's a pretty good law, everything considered.

While we can each think of instances where stealing something would be desirable in individual cases, and if we're liberal Democrats we think stealing other people's money in the form of government taxation is acceptable, but few question the principle behind the law that stealing is wrong.

So a law mandating the theft of your neighbor's property would be wrong, precisely because it contravenes our notions of right and wrong, the primordial soup from which laws evolve.

Communism of the sort enacted in the Soviet Union was an attempt to work backwards, to impose an artificial concept of right and wrong ("You don't really want to work for your own personal good, you really want to work for someone else's personal good!") on a populace instead of a populace creating a government reflecting their own values.

Such unnatural laws destroyed the Russian nation and left a populace deeply screwed up -- nihilistic, alcoholic and confused even today, a generation after the Soviet Union's fall. Actions based on bad ideas have bad consequences.

Economists and historians speak of "the tragedy of the commons," where a natural resource used by all and owned by none will, sooner or later, wither away from overuse and neglect. So when you make your entire economy a commons, as Russia did, your entire economy withers away from overuse and neglect. Which it did.

And while I'm certainly more in favor of individual rights than communal "rights," I believe in the concept of the village green, with the minimal government regulation necessary to preserve it, and avoid the inevitable tragedy of the unregulated commons.

Historically in English villages there was private property, every yeoman owned his own house and sheep and garden, but there was a village green, open for all to pasture their animals. Nobody owned it, everyone owned it. It wasn't fenced off, if you had livestock they could graze there. This strikes common-sense people as a good way to do it.

Then one day somebody, probably the kid everyone else had picked on in school, went to the king or whoever, Parliament, and convinced them that he had the "right" to fence off part of the village green for himself.

Whether he had that "right" or not isn't the point. In British society and under British law if he did, he did. The point is that after a while there were no communal village greens left in England. Again, whether that's a good or bad thing isn't the point, if you were rich enough to grab a juicy piece of pasture you thought it was a good thing, if you now had nowhere to graze your animals you thought it sucked. Sure the grass was kept nice and green, but that didn't help you as much as the old lower-quality but still available grass did.

I said I was in favor of individual over communal rights, and I am. I'm not a doctrinaire straight-ticket yellow dog libertarian, the orthodox libertarian position's as logically incoherent and hypocritical as the pacifist's or anarchist's or Communist's. Nobody would want to live in a pure libertarian society, we all like a certain level of government action, health inspecting Chinese restaurants, building roads and maintaining libraries.

The Internet is a pretty close analogy to the English village green. What we're seeing now is attempts to fence off parts of it, the most desirable parts, for the purpose of charging money to let animals graze off that choice grass, instead of the scrabbly crabgrass that'll be left after all the high-speed bandwidth's auctioned off to the highest bidders.

Great, say the phone companies and those who can afford the high-speed pasture. Hey, wait a second, say everyone else. That strikes us as unfair, especially since you didn't exactly create the grass in the first place.

Again, let me make it perfectly clear that while I believe all men are created equal, I don't for one second believe they all do or should end up that way. Hard work, strong moral values, brains and luck count for something, in that order. If somebody is down and out in this world, then unless they live in North Korea or Somalia the odds are much greater that they're lazy or they made bad choices than that bad luck or overarching stupidity is keeping them from being where they want to be. No commies here at First Coffee.

The point is, do phone companies have that right, to piece off the village green? They didn't create the Internet any more than English peasants created the grass, it was there provided as an act of God. Man, being man, promptly screwed up God's creation as much as possible, but the Internet, unless we're missing some key verses from Genesis, is a creation of humans -- and most certainly not of phone companies.

Which is why all this talk about "ownership" and "rights" coming from those who want to "own" the Internet for their own personal profit is so juvenile, wrong and otherwise stupid. Phone companies don't own the Internet. They didn't create the Internet. They did not take the entrepreneurial risk of investing in the Internet.

All they do is provide lines for people to access the Internet. The entrepreneurial risk they take is limited to laying fiber. They don't own what goes across that fiber -- this morning I placed an order to Land's End online. Neither I nor Land's End owe Verizon anything for "enabling" that transaction, we already pay them for the service they've contracted to provide, which is my access to Land's End's servers.

If phone companies had created the Internet -- if they actually owned it -- then fine, all this self-important bleating blather about private property and the "right" to charge whatever they want has merit. But they do not own the Internet, they own the means by which we access the Internet. It's presumptuous, dangerous and destructive for them to act as if they own the Internet itself.

Can they charge what they want for the use of their phone lines? Depends if you think the owners of the Mass Pike toll road can charge more toll for different cars. The false analogy phone companies use is that while trucks pay more because they inflict more wear and tear on the road, they should charge more to heavier users of their lines.

But of course that's not what the phone companies are talking about here, leave aside the fact that using fiber doesn't damage it the way trucks damage pavement: they're talking about charging one trucking company higher tolls than another trucking company to use the high-speed lanes on the turnpike.

Sometimes government regulation is to save people from their own stupidity. Trust-busting legislation is a good example of this, unless you think New York to Los Angeles long-distance rates were better back when AT&T held the monopoly. The Internet got to where it is today not because of phone companies deciding who got good service and who didn't, but because the vendors themselves had to continually provide the sort of service which differentiated themselves from their competitors one click away. Phone companies did nothing but piggyback on that.

And having phone companies, rather than consumers, decide what the heavily-trafficked sites will be, based on the sites' ability to bribe the phone companies, would be as artificial, anti-competitive and stifling a situation as Soviet Russia.

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