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Leave Them Tubes Alone

The trouble with net neutrality

David Harsanyi
May 21, 2010

As there is no real problem with the Internet, it's not surprising that some of our top minds have been working diligently on a solution.

In a 2001 interview (one that only recently has gone viral and caused a brouhaha), Cass Sunstein, now the nation's regulatory czar, is overheard advocating for government to insist all websites offer opposing viewpoints—or, in other words, a "Fairness" Doctrine for the Web. This was necessary because, as hundreds of millions of Internet users can attest, ferreting out competing perspectives online is all but impossible. (A search for "Cass Sunstein" on Google, for instance, barely generated 303,000 results in 0.19 seconds.)

And what if websites refused to acquiesce to this intrusion on free speech? "If we could get voluntary arrangements in that direction, it would be great," Sunstein said at the time, "and if we can't get voluntary arrangements, maybe Congress should hold hearings about mandates." After all, Sunstein went on to say, "the word 'voluntary' is a little complicated. And sometimes people don't do what's best for our society." Mandates, he said, were the "ultimate weapon designed to encourage people to do better."

Actually, the word "voluntary" isn't complicated at all. And mandates do not "encourage" people to do better; mandates "force" people to do what those writing regulations happen to think is better. We're intimately familiar with the distinction.

In truth, I've enjoyed many of Sunstein's counterintuitive arguments and read his idealistic notions about "nudging" (and sometimes a bit more, apparently; I guess it's complicated) irrational people into "rational" choices. Sunstein is an intellectual who thinks aloud. Obviously, that can come back to cause you some problems.

Then again, would an impulsive intellectual who wondered aloud about coercing universities to offer more right-wing professors—or who casually entertained the idea of dispensing with the First Amendment—be tasked with the job of overseeing the health of the nation's entire regulatory system, which holds so many real-world consequences? Doubtful.

Sunstein, it must be noted, later backed off his dictatorial approach to dealing with the non-crisis of our narrow online reading habits by claiming that the Internet is "too difficult to regulate in a way that would respond to these concerns." In other words, he concluded that the Internet is too complex to allow for the types of regulatory intrusions we insist on in other areas of everyday life.

Others have not backed off, though. The Federal Communications Commission has been working diligently to find a way to act on the same control impulses that Sunstein had in mind, with something called "net neutrality."

I know it sounds wonderfully fair. But the reality of net neutrality makes as much sense as mandating that tricycle riders have the same rights and privileges as cars and trucks on our roads—highway neutrality.

The FCC promises it doesn't have any intention of controlling Internet content, only of making access fair. But empowered with the ability to regulate the flow of online traffic, it offers a semantic, not substantive, excuse for a power grab.

Like Sunstein, the FCC should acknowledge that the complexities of the Internet are beyond the ability of control. Not to mention unnecessary.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his website at www.DavidHarsanyi.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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