Today's Question Blog

Should the Internet be regulated like other public utilities?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is back in court to defend net neutrality from cable and telecom companies. In February, the FCC passed new regulations that changed its oversight over Internet service providers (ISPs), ensuring "that no one — whether government or corporate — should control free open access to the Internet," as FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said. The FCC reclassified broadband Internet access under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, defining it as an essential public utility like landline telephone service, making it so that all legal Internet traffic is treated equally. Should it stay that way?

Joshua Steimle is an entrepreneur and technology writer whose work has appeared in Times, Forbes, and Mashable. He also is the CEO of MWI, a digital marketing firm, and is a co-director of the Hong Kong chapter of Startup Grind. He writes:

"In addition to death and taxes there are two other things that are certain in life; 1) when left on its own technology always gets better and cheaper, and 2) whenever government regulates an industry those regulations favor large corporations and hurt startup competitors. Whether or not the FCC had the authority to reclassify the Internet as a "common carrier service" is a technical legal question for attorneys and the courts to work out. However, I have little doubt whether common carrier regulations do more harm than good. I understand the intent behind net neutrality to provide fairness and a level playing field but if history is any guide then net neutrality is more likely to stifle innovation and put more money in the coffers of Comcast and Time Warner.

Free markets are the best antidote to big business. This is especially true when it comes to technology, where lawmakers struggle to keep abreast of changing trends and by the time they've created a law or regulation the problem that inspired it has often come and gone. The Microsoft anti-trust case is a worthy example. Who uses Internet Explorer? Microsoft doesn't even support it anymore. But it wasn't the anti-trust case that killed it, it was competition from Firefox.

Monopolies in technology are rare and short-lived in a free market. Where they have any staying power it's usually due to government interference, as is the case with ISPs. Large ISPs currently receive favors from governments large and small. Just go try and start an ISP and you'll see how difficult it is, not just because it's hard to start any business, but because of the regulatory and legal hurdles you face. If anything, we should have a government commission examining what regulations are impeding competition between ISPs and working to remove them so the free market can take over. Our current state of affairs is, in many ways, a government created problem the government is trying to fix with more of what caused the problem in the first place.

But even with the advantages certain ISPs have, it won't last. Consumers want affordable high speed wireless Internet that's always on, no matter where they go, and the technology already exists to deliver it--it's just a matter of rolling it out which will take several years. Companies like Google, Facebook, and other yet to be created will find ways to subsidize their mainline businesses by providing high speed Internet access for free, and despite the future staring them in the face providers like Comcast will be caught off guard just as much as record companies were surprised by Napster. Then it will be the turn of Google, Facebook, and whatever other Internet providers exist to be surprised by the next generation of companies after them. Government may slow down innovation with its regulations, but innovation won't be stopped and one way or another consumers will end up with faster and cheaper Internet. It can be difficult to imagine because we don't know the details, but it's predictably inevitable."

Today's Question: Should the Internet be regulated like other public utilities?