Mises Wire

Big Tech Shows “Net Neutrality” Battle Was About Power, Not an “Open Internet”

The de-platforming of Alex Jones and InfoWars is a subject that has a number of layers to it, including the responsibilities social media companies have to free speech — particularly in a world where the lines between Big Tech and Big Government are increasingly blurred. While I’ll leave others to debate those particular subjects, these developments — and reactions to it — do help provide clarity to another heated tech-related debate: the hypocrisy of “net neutrality” advocates.

After all, there is a ton of overlap between those who advocated Title II regulation of the internet and those celebrating the deplatforming of Alex Jones. This is particularly true among the most powerful players in this debate, including legislators and leaders in the industry.

Consider, for example, the reaction from Big Tech to the FCC’s repeal Title II regulation last December.

Facebook’s Sherryl Sansberg published a statement saying: “An open internet is critical for new ideas and economic opportunity. ... We’re ready to work with members of Congress and others to help make the internet free and open for everyone.”

Google encouraged online activists to “take action,” in order to “protect the free flow of information and help make sure the Internet is available to everyone, everywhere.”

Apple went so far as to say:

An open internet ensures that hundreds of millions of consumers get the experience they want, over the broadband connections they choose, to use the devices they love, which have become an integral part of their lives.

What consumers do with those tools is up to them — not Apple, and not broadband providers.

Fast-forward eight months later and now those that demanded ISPs treat all content equally are the very same platforms actively deciding what content is or is not permissible for consumption.

This is hardly surprising to anyone who has paid attention to the debate. Google and Apple’s lip service to the importance of protecting tech startups has never jived well with their app stores serving as the greatest filters to what new products can be easily accessed by the consumer public. Tellingly, both have caved to government pressure whenever an app — no matter how popular — has frustrated legal authorities.

What is all the more repulsive about the tech giant’s contributions to the net neutrality debate is how potentially dangerous their disingenuous crusade was to the future of internet in America.

After all, largely overlooked in FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s willingness to stand up to Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and the other titans of tech is that it was a major victory for the future of online service: 5G.

As industry analysts like Peter Rysavy have explained:

“[N]etwork slicing, a key architecture for 5G, will allow an operator to provide different services with different performance characteristics to address specific use cases. It’s critical that quality of service management be employed in 5G because 5G is being designed for a wider range of use cases than prior technology generations and certain applications will need higher priority than other.”…

Even with access to new spectrum and peak throughputs that will exceed 1 Gbps, 5G networks will need to manage latency, reliability, massive numbers of connections and a mix of stationary and mobile users, Rysavy added. “The United States has assumed global leadership in 4G and enjoys deep LTE penetration, leading smartphone platforms, and a vibrant application ecosystem. But globally, countries and companies are investing in and concentrating on what will come next with 5G. Constraining 5G with rules that unnecessarily undermine its potential is economic folly,” he said.

Tellingly, the imposition of FDR-era-like regulation on internet service providers correlated with a significant decrease in telecom investment, stalling the development of American 5G at a time when America’s tech dominance is threatened by rivals like China.

This is not to say that private companies have an inherent responsibility to place “national interest” over their own bottom line, companies have the right to behave cynically. At the same time, those same companies deserved to be exposed for such behavior, and allow consumers to react accordingly.

Net neutrality was about control and regulatory capture, not online freedom. What tech giants are now counting on is that brand loyalty and market size will isolate them from the increased politicization of their content — something that may not be working out so well for Netflix.

At the end of the day, on the market it is consumers that are king. Will consumer apathy allow Silicon Valley to serve as America’s censor, or will we see a new brand of #WalkAway campaign?

That’s up to the American public to decide.  

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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