Tech Industry

Why does the DOJ oppose net neutrality?

From the DOJ's perspective a neutral Internet is an affront to the economic free market, but eliminating net neutrality will simultaneously eviscerate the other free market: the marketplace of ideas.

According to Wikipedia, the Department of Justice is "designed to enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans." So why is it that the Justice Department recently filed a press release stating its opposition to net neutrality? In the statement, the DOJ argues that "consumers and the economy are benefiting from the innovative and dynamic nature of the Internet," and that "regulators should be careful not to impose regulations that could limit consumer choice and investment in broadband facilities."

Of course, given that almost all locales are limited to at most two broadband carriers--the telephone and cable monopolies--there are already regulations that "limit consumer choice and investment in broadband facilities." The Justice Department seems to be tailoring its antitrust agenda in such a way as to serve the interests of certain big business interests and not the needs of the American people. If any company could enter the marketplace to offer high-speed Internet access then their position would at least be possible to defend. Were that the case, then people would be free to choose among a multitude of Internet offerings, some of which would likely offer neutrality while others would provide a preferential pipe. Only then would there be some teeth in the argument that the free market would ensure Americans get the best access at the best price. In reality, it is only the massive telecoms and cable companies that are able to provide high-speed Internet, and both camps have an economic incentive to abandon net neutrality.

As illustrated in Declan McCullagh's recent post on the Iconoclast, "Ten things that finally killed net neutrality," the Bush administration has been instrumental in suffocating the call for a neutral net, and the recent DOJ statements are simply a continuation of this opposition.

In the release, the Justice Department attempts to equate the debate over net neutrality to that of the shipping grades offered by the U.S. Postal Service,
"No one challenges the benefits to society of these differentiated products," the Department stated in its filing. "Whether or not the same type of differentiated products and services will develop on the Internet should be determined by market forces, not regulatory intervention." Despite the FCC's call for specific information on harmful broadband activities, the Department noted that comments filed in response to this Notice of Inquiry did not provide evidence that would suggest the existence of a widespread problem that needs to be addressed. In addition, there is no consensus on what "net neutrality" means or what should be prohibited in the name of "neutrality."
This comparison is flawed and deflects the reality of the situation. While an individual may decide that it's worth spending $13.85 as opposed to $0.41 to ensure that a letter arrives overnight, he or she could also choose to send that same letter through an assortment of other delivery options. When it comes to the Internet, that competition is significantly reduced. While the additional $13+ to send something overnight is going to hurt many people's finances it is unlikely to deal a death blow. On the other hand, the costs associated to secure a reliable stream for videos and other media content will undoubtedly be at a much higher price point and will likely take many hobbyist media makers off line and out of the running for your time.

From the DOJ's perspective a neutral Internet is an affront to the economic free market, but eliminating net neutrality will simultaneously eviscerate the other free market: the marketplace of ideas. Unlike radio, television and print, the barrier to entry on the Internet is quite low. Anyone with a computer and Internet access can create a venue for their voice to be heard. With that said, should it really come as too much of a surprise that the Department of Justice under the Bush administration would express their opposition to a structure that allows opposition and minority views to be as accessible as that of the massive media corporations that dominate almost all communication venues?