The libertarian super-duo, Congressman Ron Paul and his son, U.S. Senator Rand Paul, launched an “Internet Freedom” campaign this week that has come out swinging against net neutrality, branding it as a clever attempt at more government intervention. “The Technology Revolution” manifesto decries any attempt to regulate private Internet service providers as an affront to liberty, yet seems to ignore that powerful telecommunications monopolies can wield as much coercion over the future of the Internet as the government. A world without a level playing field of Internet bandwidth allows powerful companies to favor their well-endowed corporate friends over the scrappy startups that power the most vibrant innovation on the web.
The father/son manifesto praises the Internet as an unqualified libertarian success story, “companies, like Apple,” it explains, are ” responsible for creating almost half a million jobs in the United States since the iPhone was introduced…All in less than 5 years, and all without government permission, partnerships, subsidies, or regulations!”
The manifesto says that supporters of net neutrality, a law requiring all Internet providers to give equal bandwidth to all web sites, “are masters at hijacking the language of freedom and liberty to disingenuously push for more centralized control.” Though net neutrality is designed to protect nascent businesses’ internet speeds from being throttled, The Pauls argue that such government regulation is contrary to the vision of the Founding Fathers.
Team Paul, however, should double-check the intellectual mentors to the American Founding Fathers and their direct lessons for economic innovation.
John Locke, the philosophical godfather of modern “Liberty,” warned as much against government coercion as he did against the wasteful hoarding of common resources. “The NATURAL liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man,” wrote Locke, in the familiar language of small government-lovers everywhere.
However, Locke also argued that common resources, such as land, needed to be protected from overuse, so that myriad individuals could cultivate the kinds of innovation that promoted widespread prosperity. “But if they perished, in his possession, without their due use; if the fruit rotted, or the venison putrefied, before he could spend it, he offended against the common law of nature,” he warned.
There are three very important reasons why the Internet is a common resource and needs protection from powerful corporations.
1. Scrappy startups need protection from overbearing competitors. Without net neutrality, well-endowed incumbent corporations could pay service providers to reroute more bandwidth to themselves, killing startups in their fragile infancy. Myspace could have easily outspent Facebook for more Internet speed, condemning Facebook to the same fate as its predecessor, Friendster, which lost many of its users to frustratingly slow download speeds. As Union Square venture capitalist, Albert Wenger, explained his profit-seeking support of net neutrality, “Our own bias here is clear: we are pro-startup and pro-innovation.”
2. Internet providers need an incentive to equally sacrifice bandwidth to peer-to-peer download services. The same pirate-friendly peer-to-peer services that stream gigabytes of Hollywood movies are also vital for sharing the open-source software, such as Linux, that are essential to the technical underpinnings of the Internet. While Internet service providers benefit from the free open-source, each individual company has a financial incentive to restrict Internet speed over peer-to-peer services, so long as other providers are willing to let open-source code stream alongside bandwidth hogging multimedia files. This is the so-called “tragedy of the commons,” wherein the self-interest of everyone overusing common resources collectively screws everyone (for a more intuitive example, think about how overfishing with explosives dries up food supplies, and why governments would have an incentive to restrict the practice.)
3. Internet service providers are a virtual monopoly. Many individuals have only one option for high-speed Internet. Consumers cannot threaten to leave for a competitor, and are therefore held captive by providers who can favor the highest paying websites, even if they are offering a sub-par product. (For an amusing story of just how tightly controlled these monopolies are, check out Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak’s pro net-neutrality tale of how his attempt to create his own service was shut down.)
The government is not the only threat to liberty. Our philosophical predecessors warned mostly of governments largely because free market capitalism, and the terrors of non-state monopolies, were over a century away. Unbridled choice is, and has never, been the definition of liberty. The free and equal opportunity to innovate common resources for individual and social gain was the vision of Locke, the Founding Fathers, and should be the principle of a free Internet.