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The Bad Old Days of the Internet and Other Myths of Network Neutrality

Harold Furchtgott-Roth

The Federal Communications Commission repealed vintage 2015 rules regulating the Internet that are popularly known as network neutrality. The FCC received millions of comments, a great many of which were apparently fraudulent. Even so, many Americans are upset. So too are many of the largest corporations in the world. Let’s try to understand why.

At its core, the argument in favor of network neutrality is that the Internet before 2015 was a profoundly inferior service. Repealing network neutrality takes us back to those bad old days before 2015, when the Internet was a bad experience for Americans and when Americans were desperate for a better Internet.

If network neutrality rules were profoundly consumer friendly, one might expect to see dramatically higher consumer subscription to the Internet in the United States after 2015. But consumer subscription and acceptance of the Internet began long before 2015. It is difficult to find empirical evidence that 2015 was a dramatic watershed event in terms of consumer adaption of the Internet.

Some groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union claim that network neutrality is vital for free speech. One might imagine that the ACLU and other free-speech organizations would point to endless examples of free speech violations on the Internet before 2015. One would have imagined incorrectly; neither the ACLU nor other free-speech organizations can point to examples much less a pattern, of free speech violations before 2015.

The Consumers Union and other consumers’ group supported network neutrality as important for consumers. One might imagine that the Consumers Union and other consumers’ groups would point to endless examples of bad treatment of consumers of Internet services before 2015. One would have imagined incorrectly again; neither the Consumers Union nor other consumers’ groups can point to examples much less a pattern, of mistreatment of consumers of Internet services before 2015.

Many high tech companies—far too many to list—state that network neutrality is important for the preservation of innovation and competition on the Internet. One might imagine that these companies would point to a litany of innovations lost and anticompetitive behavior gained before 2015. One would have imagined incorrectly again.

From 1990 to 2015, the Internet grew. We Americans loved it. We became attached to it spending hours of our day on it. It helped do our jobs better. It entertained us. It informed us. It spawned countless new companies including many that are now among the largest corporations in the world. It reshaped the American economy and arguably accounted for much of the growth in the American economy over that period. The economic reality of the Internet in America is real, not imagined.

And it reorganized the world economy as well. Many of the best and brightest minds from around the globe flocked to American high tech companies to work on the Internet. The Internet was founded with American technology. It distributes American ideas and culture. The economic reality of the Internet around the world is real, not imagined.

The Internet did all of this without network neutrality rules.

It is difficult to listen network neutrality advocates and not hear their passion and concerns. They are passionate. They are concerned. But their concerns are more about hypothetical future bad outcomes, not about past bad outcomes before 2015. They present an unpersuasive argument that while we may not have needed network neutrality rules before 2015, we will need them in the future. All it takes, we are told, is a little more imagination.

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