Technology × Freedom

Libertarians for Net Neutrality?

May 16, 2017 invisiblehand

In the comments section of various articles on net neutrality, I've noticed more and more self-described libertarians who actually advocate for net neutrality. The argument heated up in a recent article (the site and commenters shall remain nameless), but here's a close paraphrase:

Anti_Neutrality: Broadband is a scarce resource, which means content providers such as Netflix that use that bandwidth to reach their consumers are taking bandwidth away from other content providers and users. With net neutrality, ISPs can't charge for higher access rates or speed priority, which removes any incentive to innovate or invest in competing broadband infrastructure.

Pro_Neutrality: I agree that net neutrality is bad in a competitive, free-market environment. But the ISP market isn't free or competitive - it's dominated by government-granted monopolies. The best solution is to deregulate the industry entirely to increase real competition. But until the government stops granting a monopoly to providers, it should ensure that the consumer is protected from anti-competitive actions such as bandwidth throttling.

Anti_Neutrality: But bandwidth throttling isn't anti-competitive. It's simply a way for ISPs to allocate a scarce resource so that customers who are willing to pay more, get more, and customers who aren't, get less.

Pro_Neutrality: You're wrong, there's actually far more bandwidth in the U.S. than we need. ISPs throttle because they just want to squeeze a little bit more profit out of their customers without providing any additional service. So until the government lifts regulations that bar new entrants from the ISP market, we should hold it responsible for stopping anti-consumer behavior like bandwidth throttling that wouldn't occur in a competitive, free-market environment.

Assuming he's correct that there's more bandwidth supply than demand right now (I haven't confirmed this for myself), Pro_ actually has a point. Net neutrality would theoretically stop ISPs from gouging customers. And he admits that deregulating the broadband market is the best solution. But I disagree that we should support net neutrality just because it's the next best solution. Why? Because it makes the government look like the good guy and private enterprise look like the bad guy, which reinforces rather than exposes the problem (government intervention). I'd rather the original government intervention (granting monopoly privileges) run its course and result in the inevitable decrease in quality and service and increase in costs. Then, voters would see the root cause plainly and demand change. Tweaking the problem with more government intervention so that bad outcomes are suppressed and the immediate results are tolerable will only delay the proper corrective action. Let government-granted monopolies implode: it will hurt consumers in the short term but help everyone in the long term.

Pro_ also assumes that a federal mandate is the best way to solve a localized problem. Some cities truly have an ISP monopoly. But other cities such as Kansas City and Austin have deregulated the broadband market on the local level and already have a much healthier market as a result. As a blanket mandate across the U.S., net neutrality hinders progress made at this local level.