Perhaps you've noticed that the Internet is a real dud. No one much uses it as a medium of communication, it hasn't added anything to mankind's search for knowledge, and despite the government's vast investment in the infrastructure of the Internet, myopic telecommunications companies have failed to find any commercial or economic value in it.
No, you hadn't noticed? That's because this narrative turns reality on its head. But it is precisely the kind of inversion of truth that three members of the Federal Communications Commission have used to justify an order to adopt rules — the details of which won't be known until sometime in the future — to regulate the Internet.
You see, the Internet just hasn't done very well without the guiding hand of Big Brother. Pingdom, an Internet monitoring firm, estimates that 1.7 billion worldwide users sent an average of 247 billion e-mails a day in 2009. This month, Google launched its Ngram Viewer, which puts the contents of 5,195,769 books spanning five centuries on the Internet in a searchable database. On Cyber Monday, Nov. 29, Americans racked up more than $1 billion in online sales.
The Internet began in the 1960s as a government project with an important yet limited purpose. The Defense Department's ARPANET allowed scientists separated by large distances to collaborate on research projects. It wasn't until the 1980s, however, when the Internet began to be commercialized, that it also started to have an impact beyond a limited community.
Since then, private capital and investment have created a robust Internet that has changed the way the world communicates, destroyed barriers to the sharing of information, expanded the frontiers of knowledge, created new modes of entertainment and commerce, and generated trillions of dollars in wealth.
So what's wrong with the Internet? According to FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, "It may be dying because entrenched interests are positioning themselves to control the Internet's choke points." That was Copps' prediction in 2003, one year before Facebook was launched, two years before some former employees of PayPal — another Internet success story — started YouTube, and three years before Amazon began offering cloud computing services.
If the last decade is an indication of what Internet necrosis and choke points look like, then by all means, let's have more of them. Yet in his statement concurring with the decision to regulate the Internet, Copps, who is still an FCC commissioner, writes unashamedly that his 2003 warning was issued "somewhat dramatically perhaps — but not inaccurately."
The Internet isn't broken. So why are three Democrats on the Federal Communications Commission trying to fix it? They're pursuing a vague progressive objective with the deceptive name of net neutrality.
Net neutrality is anything but neutral. It takes the operation of the Internet away from the heterogeneous and diversified interests of the private sector that has created it and concentrates it in the hands of an unelected and unaccountable board of political appointees atop a federal bureaucracy. Does that sound like a recipe for continued innovation?
The dire problems net neutrality activists cry wolf about either don't exist or have already been resolved without the heavy hand of government influence. A federal court has ruled the FCC lacks the legal authority to regulate Internet service providers. So why try to do so?
Over the last two decades, millions of individuals have contributed to a remarkable expansion of freedom, creativity and commerce on the Internet that has benefited billions of people. For three FCC commissioners, that's a problem. The power to regulate, after all, is the power to control. For control freaks, few things are more tempting than an unfettered Internet.
E-mail Jonathan Gurwitz at email@example.com