Last week, I had the pleasure of discussing net neutrality with James Boyle, a Duke Law Professor and the co-founder of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, and Paul Jones, the director of ibiblio, on WUNC’s The State of Things radio program. Our hour-long discussion touched on a number of important tech policy topics, and I highly recommend giving the show a listen (download the MP3 here) if you’re interested in hearing the insights of two very thoughtful scholars and critics of cyber-libertarianism.
I’m a big admirer of Boyle and Jones, who’ve both done a lot of excellent work studying copyright and public domain in the information age. While I don’t share their views on the merits of net neutrality regulation — or, perhaps, of government regulation in general — there’s much common ground between us on many issues, including intellectual property, free speech, and government surveillance.
For folks who don’t want to spend an hour listening to our discussion, I’ve typed up a brief summary of the questions we attempted to tackle in our discussion and the various arguments we raised. My apologies if I’ve mischaracterized any arguments or statements — if you want to know what was actually said, go listen to the whole interview!
- What role should government play in regulating the Internet? I argue its proper role is to enforce voluntary arrangements (Terms of Service) and, when appropriate, enforce civil judgments against firms that have broken their promises. Boyle, on the other hand, argues that government should enforce not only contracts but also net neutrality rules because last-mile Internet service is a natural monopoly and consumers often don’t understand what they’re getting, which means that socially desirable contracts aren’t likely to emerge. I respond by citing Thomas DiLorenzo’s critique of the natural monopoly hypothesis and pointing out that government has obstructed ISP competition by allocating spectrum inefficiently and imposing excessive costs on wireline ISPs through burdensome rights-of-way and franchising rules.
- Why did Google retreat on its commitment to net neutrality in joining with Verizon to exempt wireless services from neutrality? Boyle argues it’s because Google realized the future of communications is mobile and believed it needed to compromise with Verizon (America’s biggest wireless carrier). Jones points out that the Google-Verizon proposal isn’t a business agreement, but a compromise designed to address the conflicting interests of various stakeholders. I argue that Google recognized that government discrimination among competing business models and platforms is a greater danger to consumers than provider discrimination, and that innovation truly occurs when ‘walled gardens’ such as the iPhone co-evolve with open platforms like Android — the “Yin and Yang” of innovation, as Bret Swanson puts it). Boyle argues that proprietary platforms and exclusionary deals between content and service providers preclude disruptive innovation and digital generativity. He cites the financial crisis as an example of inadequate regulation resulting in poor outcomes that might have not have occurred had there been greater oversight.
- Does collusion among large, powerful Internet corporations help or harm consumers and innovation? Jones cites Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in arguing that, without government regulation, mega-corporations will collude and carve up the marketplace, hindering innovation and progress. I argue that leaving companies free to try to “carve up markets” actually spurs beneficial competitive responses and promotes destructive market entry, even if the process isn’t always pretty. I argue that the forces arrayed against today’s major companies–competitors, consumers, suppliers, downstream partners–make it impossible for any entity or group of entities to engage in any truly abusive practices without suffering harsh punishment.
- Will entrepreneurs and innovators even be able to get off the ground if corporations have unlimited control over Internet applications and content? I argue that government policies, such as the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions, are a major part of the problem because they distort natural market outcomes and prop up bad business models. Boyle agrees that these provisions are seriously problematic, calling DMCA a “lawyers’ full employment act.” He points out that many of the most important innovations of the last couple of decades — Google, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth — came about precisely because of the Internet’s openness and dynamism. I argue that the openness that characterizes the Internet is indeed desirable in many ways, but that voluntary institutions can offer open platforms without being forced to do so by government. I point out that network operators who hinder the value of the content that traverses their pipes do so at their own peril, and that infrastructure and content companies actually have a symbiotic relationship, rather than an adversarial one. Jones argues that because many ISPs are also content companies, they have an incentive to privilege their own content at the expense of competing offerings. I point out that consumer demand for Internet video outlets (i.e. YouTube and Hulu) deters providers from slowing down Internet-delivered content. Boyle argues that the continued existence of the open Internet is crucial in ensuring that the ‘walls’ that enclose walled gardens don’t grow too tall.
- Shouldn’t we treat the Internet like a public utility — a road on which all can travel? I argue that treating the Internet like a public utility, like we already treat roads, raises the dilemma of the tragedy of the commons. I point out that many private roads already exist today without the ‘tollbooths’ that neutrality advocates fear. Jones points out that the real tragedy is one of unregulated commons which lack adequate rules. Boyle argues that the economics of physical property (scarce goods) cannot readily be mapped to networks and calls the Internet a “comedy of the commons” (borrowing from Carol Rose). I argue that government-run commons have a poor track record, from highways to the wi-fi band, and that the success of network industries requires smart investment and innovation that government isn’t well-equipped to deliver. Boyle argues that not all resources must be owned if they’re to be efficiently utilized, citing the emergence of free trade with India and China in the 1700s and the subsequent collapse of state-chartered trading monopolies. Boyle argues that tomorrow’s “next great thing” may never emerge if the openness of today’s Internet isn’t enshrined in regulation.