The topic of ‘Net Neutrality’ laws sits in the middle of a debate over which is worse: big business or big government. Internet access is a vital commodity, and exclusively provided by private, for-profit companies. With the established wired and wireless networks spanning North America, bandwidth is a vast, but not unlimited resource. The question posed is who should decide how this limited resource is distributed, and by what mechanism. The ‘for it’ side argues that private companies could artificially limit bandwidth for their own gain (profit) and should be regulated by government to distribute it according to the government’s definition of ‘fair’. The ‘against it’ side argues that private companies should be allowed to distribute bandwidth according to market demand, and that allowing governments to impose regulations on private companies is inefficient and a target for political coercion.
For years it was easy to cast each player in this debate in black and white caricature, government as good and business as evil. In the United States, Barack Obama’s administration was seen as principled and noble, treated with reverence by the press and defended passionately by the left. How could a government headed by a such an affable, jeans-wearing, bike-riding, smooth-dancing aw-shucks herald of civil rights and human dignity be distrusted? Obama was a champion for minorities of all categories, he fought for healthcare and the middle class, they said. Anyone who opposed such a benevolent and kind institution must surely be paranoid, unreasonable, or just on ‘the wrong side of history’.
Then, November came. Barack Obama was unexpectedly replaced not by the left-wing, media darling Hillary Clinton as so many predicted, but by Donald Trump, who had been portrayed for a year as unhinged, unstable, and unbecoming of the position. Republicans took a majority in the Senate and House of Representatives. The drum-beat accusations of fascist, nazi-pandering, totalitarian, rights-trampling evilness migrated from Clinton’s campaign speeches into the teleprompters and opinion columns of the media, and from there to the popular wisdom of the left. It became cool to worry about concentration camps and military raids, and to tweet of fighting back against totalitarianism.
Now advocates for Net Neutrality on the left are forced to confront a contradiction: Is access to the internet a fundamental right, the protection of which should be entrusted to the enormous and arbitrary powers of government, or is the government a malicious, dictatorial regime that must be #Resisted? Should such a critical resource as internet access be entrusted to an institution helmed by one so demonized as Donald Trump? This is a conundrum which could be foreseen as easily as it can be avoided: Don’t give government any more responsibilities than absolutely necessary. You don’t have to worry about it abusing power it doesn’t have.
The future is unpredictable, and laws outlive the political climate in which they were created. This has to be considered when deciding how much regulatory power to grant governments. Once in place, regulations are hard to rescind, and often only get worse over time. Without taxpayer funding and a police force to back them, private companies rise and fall entirely at the mercy of their customers, and rather than every four years, your ballot is cast every time you open your wallet or take your business elsewhere.
It remains to be seen whether people’s newfound distrust in government causes any to revisit their opinion on the wisdom of Net Neutrality. Politics makes strange bedfellows, so with any luck Trump’s election will introduce some to the benefits of limited government.