Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What's Neutral About Net Neutrality?

I haven't been able to parse the ins and outs of the bill yet, but apparently a blow is about to be struck to the few of us who oppose "net neutrality." In a recent piece on the UK Guardian, Al Franken heralds the forthcoming passage of the bill as a victory for free speech:

Al Franken, the Democrat senator, said the vote would decide "the most important free speech issue of our time".

"Imagine if Comcast customers couldn't watch Netflix, but were limited only to Comcast's video-on-demand service. Imagine if a cable news network could get its website to load faster on your computer than your favourite local political blog. Imagine if big corporations with their own agenda could decide who wins or loses online," Franken said on Monday. "The internet as we know it would cease to exist."

Yes, and imagine if Rolling Stone magazine refused to include advertisements for Revolver, or if a restaurant chain owned by Coca-Cola refused to sell Pepsi products. Oh, the horror! We can't afford to allow such a disintegration of our freedom of speech!

All kidding aside, when did rights transition from a negative conception to a positive one?

In the debate on health care, the right to be able to receive it turned into the "right" to take it. Maybe it's just a differentiation in terms; semantics. But some terms mean something very specific (at least to me). I have the right to own a firearm...it doesn't translate into the right to be given a firearm if I cannot secure one for personal use. And what of "free speech?" When did your right to speak turn into your right to use other people and their property as a vehicle for that speech? If a billboard owner wanted to charge a rival billboard owner twice the going rate for a billboard advertisement, would we collectively harangue over the abridgment of "free speech"?

Of course, there are more complex arguments for net neutrality - not the least of which is an argument that the telecoms are quasi-monopolistic. Yes, quasi-monopolistic and quasi-municipal. I have to wonder how many supporters of government intervention a la "net neutrality" have sat and pondered about the municipal nature of such companies and what role government has played in the larger scheme of things. But that conversation is for another day perhaps.

In any case, as easy as it is to jump on-board with such programs under the mental duress of feel-good language like "equality", "neutrality","hope", "compassion", etc. - I implore people to actually look closer at the issue at hand and think twice before they throw their support one way or the other. We don't have "magazine neutrality", "soft-drink neutrality", or "billboard neutrality". And if you can figure out why there's not a need for any talk of those things, then you've got at least one foot in the door.

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