Net neutrality: what’s a libertarian to do?

One of my commenters asked, rather plaintively:

You mentioned net neutrality. I’ve read about this, and the opposition to it. I’ve read about this, and the opposition to it. As far as I can tell, net neutrality is more supported by liberals/democrats, while the opposition is made up more of conservatives/republicans. But for the life of me I can’t figure out which is the the more libertarian position.

Your confusion is entirely reasonable. I’ve hung out with network-neutrality activists and tried to give them what I thought was useful advice. Their political fixations didn’t permit them to hear me. Here’s a summary of the issues and one libertarian’s take on them.

Here’s where it starts: the wire-line telcos want to use their control of the copper and fiber that runs to your house to double-dip, not only charging consumers for bandwidth but also hitting up large content providers (Google, Amazon, etc.) for quality-of-service fees. There’s another question that gets folded into the debate, too: under what circumstances the telcos can legitimately traffic-shape, e.g. by blocking or slowing the protocols used for p2p filesharing.

It is not clear that the regulatory regime under which the telcos operate allows them to do either thing. They haven’t tried to implement double-dipping yet, and they’re traffic-shaping by stealth and lying about it when they get caught. What they want is a political green light to do both.

Let it be clear from the outset that the telcos are putting their case for being allowed to do these things with breathtaking hypocrisy. They honk about how awful it is that regulation keeps them from setting their own terms, blithely ignoring the fact that their last-mile monopoly is entirely a creature of regulation. In effect, Theodore Vail and the old Bell System bribed the Feds to steal the last mile out from under the public’s nose between 1878 and 1920; the wireline telcos have been squatting on that unnatural monopoly ever since as if they actually had some legitimate property right to it.

But the telcos’ crimes aren’t merely historical. They have repeatedly bargained for the right to exclude competitors from their networks on the grounds that if the regulators would let them do that, they’d be able to generate enough capital to deploy broadband everywhere. That promise has been repeatedly, egregiously broken. Instead, they’ve creamed off that monopoly rent as profit or used it to cross-subsidize competition in businesses with higher rates of return. (Oh, and of course, to bribe legislators and buy regulators.)

Mistake #1 for libertarians to avoid is falling for the telcos’ “we’re pro-free market” bullshit. They’re anything but; what they really want is a politically sheltered monopoly in which they have captured the regulators and created business conditions that fetter everyone but them.

OK, so if the telcos are such villainous scum, the pro-network-neutrality activists must be the heroes of this story, right?

Unfortunately, no.

Your typical network-neutrality activist is a good-government left-liberal who is instinctively hostile to market-based approaches. These people think, rather, that if they can somehow come up with the right regulatory formula, they can jawbone the government into making the telcos play nice. They’re ideologically incapable of questioning the assumption that bandwidth is a scarce “public good” that has to be regulated. They don’t get it that complicated regulations favor the incumbent who can afford to darken the sky with lawyers, and they really don’t get it about outright regulatory capture, a game at which the telcos are past masters.

I’ve spent endless hours trying to point out to these people that their assumptions are fundamentally wrong, and that the only way to break the telco monopoly is to break the scarcity assumptions it’s based on. That the telecoms regulatorium, far from being what holds the telcos in check, is actually their instrument of control. And that the only battle that actually matters is the one to carve out enough unlicensed spectrum so we can use technologies like ad-hoc networking with UWB to end-run the whole mess until it collapses under its own weight.

They don’t get it. They refuse to get it. I’ve been on a mailing list for something called the “Open Infrastructure Alliance” that consisted of three network engineers and a couple dozen “organizers”; the engineers (even the non-libertarian engineers) all patiently trying to explain why the political attack is a non-starter, and the organizers endlessly rehashing political strategies anyway. Because, well, that’s all they know how to do.

In short, the “network neutrality” crowd is mainly composed of well-meaning fools blinded by their own statism, and consequently serving mainly as useful idiots for the telcos’ program of ever-more labyrinthine and manipulable regulation. If I were a telco executive, I’d be on my knees every night thanking my god(s) for this “opposition”. Mistake #2 for any libertarian to avoid is backing these clowns.

So, what are libertarians to do?

We can start by remembering a simple truth: The only substantive threat to the telco monopoly is bandwidth that has been removed from the reach of both the telcos and their political catspaws in the regulatorium. Keep your eye on that ball; the telcos know it’s the important one and will try to distract you from it, while the “network neutrality” crowd doesn’t know it and wastes most of its energy self-defeatingly wrestling with the telcos over how to re-slice the existing pie.

Go active whenever there’s a political debate about “unlicensed spectrum”. More of it is good. Oppose any efforts to make UWB (or any other technology that doesn’t cause destructive interference) require a license anywhere on the spectrum. If you are capable, contribute to the development of mesh networking, especially wireless mesh networking.

Oh, and buy an Android phone. As I noted in my immediately previous post, Google is our ally in this.

UPDATE: I’ve summarized the history of the Bell System’s theft of the last mile here.

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