A Libertarian Case for Net Neutrality
As a libertarian you may be uneasy with the concept of net neutrality. Like me, you feel inexplicably drawn to this neutrality but feel guilty for it. You think to yourself, “I’m a free-market libertarian, by God! Regulation is wrong! Why is my instinct betraying me?” It’s because we don’t live in perfect world. We live in an economy that is far from free and is infested with government regulations and corporate manipulation. The internet service industry is a picturesque example of this.
Net neutrality, with broadband internet’s highly regulated market, places us in a predicament. It’s forcing us to choose between two concepts that, in any other circumstance, should agree with each other. Unfortunately, due to the government’s constant manipulation, we get this Frankenstein of a situation. We have to choose between the fundamental principles of a free market and individual Americans’ constitutional rights. Fortunately, our country has a constitution which is the supreme law of the land. In this country, free markets don’t trump an individual’s constitutional right to free speech and a reasonable expectation of privacy as reinforced by the Supreme Court. Even if a private corporation owns the medium of communication, Americans still have a reasonable expectation of privacy. An American citizen, a real person, is more important than any assumed rights of a corporation.
Now the argument I just laid out leaves an apparent gaping hole that many will quickly jump on. That argument seems to say that the “property owner” doesn’t get to make the rules of use for his own property. If that’s what you’ve concluded, you are absolutely correct. That’s because these internet providers (telecom, cable, etc.) don’t own the property. They run their lines on public land and force their lines through private property with government enforced implied right-of-ways and easements. They’ve relied on government muscle, money and tax breaks to build their infrastructure and use local regulations to gain exclusive access in providing service to areas.
Now that American consumers lack alternatives, these companies want legal immunity to sift through our communications at will. Not only to filter out what they don’t want us to receive, but use the information they collect for whatever nefarious purpose their imaginations can conjure. These companies have seen the federal government taking total liberty with our communications and have become envious. The corporations want in, too. We could try and theorize their intentions, but in reality we have no idea what they could come up with.
These companies used government force to monopolize the internet service industry, creating a trust that eliminates any competition. There’s no free market here. Net neutrality isn’t ideal, but it’s realistic and very necessary. It’s extremely naive for fellow libertarians to think that they can apply free market principles in piece meal. Not only is that counter productive, but dangerous. You cannot apply freedom a la carte. If freedom isn’t applied universally it isn’t freedom.
Now what are we going to do? Force a small free-market piece into a large regulated puzzle and thump our chests in victory? If so, it will be at the expense of what remains of our few remaining rights. If we willingly give up the ownership of our communications, we no longer have any input into what’s done with them. That’s a permanent change. If we give up that ownership, that reasonable expectation of privacy, they no longer need to ask us or notify us for anything. They assume ownership of our communications as soon as it leaves our fingertips and can peruse and distribute them at will.
They no longer require warrants to hand over our communications because technically they’re no longer ours. As soon as that information hit the copper or fiber-optic wire owned by a telecom the information became property of said telecom.
In general, I think we, as libertarians, need to quit worrying about the rights of corporations. Trust me when I say that corporations have no problem getting face time with our legislature. Their gripes are addressed in a far more timely manner than the rest of us. Let’s start worrying about ourselves for once. Individual American citizens have very little clout within our own government, and the remaining power guaranteed to us by our Constitution is being whittled away as quickly as possible. We need to do whatever we can to ensure that we will be heard and that we aren’t completely shut out of our own government. Net neutrality is one step to maintain our voice and a method to communicate our will. Why would you want to surrender that?