Jennifer Hoelzer


Ajit Pai’s Net Neutrality Proposal is Stupid

His explanation is worse.

Earlier this week, when new FCC Chairman and long-time net neutrality foe, Ajit Pai released his plan to make the Internet’s equality principle an unenforceable thing of the past, he justified his decision to deregulate the telecommunications industry, by explaining,

“It’s basic economics. The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get.”

(Head meet palm.)

Where do I begin?

Let’s be clear, what this is.

This is spin. Mr. Pai (and/or the communications staffer, who wrote his statement) isn’t trying to help us understand the specific regulations he wants to roll back or what he hopes repealing those regulations will achieve. He’s not explaining how this repeal will impact us, nor is he laying out the steps he’s taking to address our concerns. And given how stunningly stupid, this seemingly common sense soundbite is, he’s definitely not trying to advance our appreciation of economic theory.

No, Mr. Pai isn’t doing any of those things. Instead, what he is doing…is attempting to build support for a policy change that will, likely, fundamentally alter the Internet as we know it, by stoking the anti-regulatory feelings of a not insignificant segment of voters (and ultimately their elected representatives), who — he knows — will support stunningly stupid stuff, as long as it’s portrayed as anti-“government control.”

Being against “government regulation” is stupid.

(Yes, I’m going to use that term a lot.) That’s not to say there aren’t government regulations that deserve to be opposed, there are. But, the term “government regulation” covers such a wide number of things, that saying you’re opposed to the concept of “government regulation,” because you don’t support some of them, is a little like saying you’re opposed to the concept of food, because you hate liver and onions. That would be stupid, right?

Opponents of government regulation like to claim their position is supported by sound economic thinking, because, you know, “It’s not a ‘free’ market, if folks aren’t ‘free’ to do whatever they want.” I know, that sounds like it makes sense, but all it really tells you is the person making the argument is either too dimwitted to understand that markets aren’t that simple or is hoping you’re dimwitted enough to be fooled by their clever word play. Just because a word exists in the title of something, does not mean said word tells you everything you need to know about how said something works. (You are aware people get PhDs in economics, right?)

We regulate markets for a reason.

Now, purveyors of that argument are, of course, right in the sense that, it’s important to carefully consider the ramifications of any intervention in the “free market,” because the basic economic principle Mr. Pai is really referring to is the fact that intervening in a market, will ultimately change the way people, companies, etc. engage in that market. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. AND — believe it or not — changing the way market actors engage in the market is basically the whole point of regulation.

What do I mean by that?

Well, first, it’s important to remember that just because we call it a free market, does not mean the market’s free of rules. The word “free” basically just means the market isn’t set up to pick winners and losers (i.e. it’s not rigged to give one company an advantage over others.) So, to put it extra simply:

  • A free market creates a level playing field for companies, etc. to compete for business.
  • If a company wants to compete for business on that market/playing field, it has to abide by its rules.
  • The rules establish the terms of competition.

To understand how that works, consider the NFL.

The league creates a level playing field for football teams to compete, by establishing rules that all competitors must abide by. As long as teams abide by the rules, they’re free to do whatever they believe it takes to win, and the rules ensure that what it takes to win will involve some form of athleticism and mastery of the game we know as football.

If the NFL were to eliminate all rules and “free” teams to employ whatever means they believe necessary to get the ball into the other team’s end zone, teams would ultimately stop competing to run the fastest and throw the farthest and start competing to do stuff like build better vehicles and bigger bombs to blow the other team’s vehicles up. So, again, the NFL sets and enforces rules that ensure teams are competing to be the best at the game we know as football, and they continuously amend and add to those rules to ensure that remains the case. (Like, for example, the league instituted a salary cap to ensure teams don’t start competing to “buy” the better team, and it recently introduced a concussion protocol to get teams to stop pursuing victory at the expense of their players’ health.)

Markets work in much the same way.

Although, instead of ensuring participants compete to be the best at football, market rules/regulations are generally established to ensure participants are competing to offer the best product at the best price. And, again, absent those rules, that doesn’t necessarily happen on its own.

For example, before the Affordable Care Act became law, health insurance companies didn’t so much compete to offer the best health insurance at the best price, they competed to be the best at only insuring healthy people, who wouldn’t need much health care. But now, thanks to the regulation requiring insurance companies to cover anyone who wants to sign up, regardless of their health status, insurance companies have to compete to offer a quality product that keeps their customers healthy. Does this regulation make it harder for insurance companies to turn a profit? Yes. And does that fact mean, there will, likely, be fewer insurance companies? Yes. But is it really better to have more companies in the market, if those companies are doing things we don’t want them to do?

“More” isn’t always better.

I ‘m sure there would be more pharmaceutical companies, if the government would just stop requiring them to demonstrate that their products are safe and effective. Because, it would be a lot cheaper and WAY more profitable if they could just market drugs, without having to worry about side effects and whether or not the drugs will actually do the thing they’ll say they do. There would also, no doubt, be more manufacturing in the U.S., if the government would just let them go back to the days when they didn’t have to care about worker safety and could force full time employees to put in 100 hour works weeks (which was, in fact, the average work week for manufacturing employees in the U.S. before Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act.) I’m sure there would be more housing construction, if the government would stop insisting houses be built to not fall down. Hell, we might even see a resurgence of plantations, if the government would just let folks keep slaves again. (Just to be clear, I AM NOT arguing for that.)

Do you really trust Comcast?

Mr. Pai argues that industry should be allowed to police itself, but you don’t have to look back very far to see that history isn’t exactly filled with examples of humans doing the right thing, when doing the wrong thing will make them more money. Yes, there are, of course, people in this world, who will always choose to do the right thing, but as long as others are free to do the wrong thing, then those people will lose. Also, seeing as Mr. Pai is basically talking about cable companies, can ANYONE say that they genuinely trust their cable company to do the right thing, if someone isn’t forcing them to do it. (And — to be clear — that’s what you are doing, if you fall for his “government regulations suck” soundbite.)

Net Neutrality is important (like really).

Net neutrality — the principle that says, internet service providers must treat all content the same– is a central tenet of the Internet as we know it. This one principle has launched countless careers and made untold innovations possible by making it possible for innovators to sink and swim — not in accordance with their ability to grease palms — but on the strength of their creation’s merits. Do Internet Service Providers want to abandon Net Neutrality, so they can start charging sites more money for better placement? Of course, they do. They’d probably make even more money doing that than they do charging customers monthly modem fees. But do we as a society of innovators and consumers of innovation want that to happen? I think the answer is, “no, we do not,” and that most of us do not mind if regulations result in fewer ISPs, as long as said regulations ensure that zero ISP’s are actively violating the integrity of the very thing we’re paying them to access.

So, long story short, Mr. Pai is correct that regulating a thing tends to result in less of said thing, but he seems to miss the point that THAT is the very reason we want these regulations in place. We don’t want the cable industry to be able to do MORE things we don’t want them to do, namely undermine Net Neutrality.

Aren’t you tired of being played for a fool?

Mr. Pai is, of course, not the first policy maker to try and build support for a position with a grossly-oversimplified-seemingly-sensible-mischaracterization-of-a-far-more-nuanced-and-complex-issue-that-actually-obscures-the-real-issues-at-hand. In fact, it’s such a commonplace tactic, that some folks will even tell you, it’s the “only” way to build support for a policy. “If you’re explaining, you’re losing,” they like to say. And they’re right, it works. Millions of Americans, for example, decided they were against the Affordable Care Act, because they’re against “government control” and “death panels,” just like millions cheered Bernie Sanders, as he seemingly argued that the President of the United States shouldn’t talk to Wall Street. (Yes, it’s a problem, if he/she ONLY talks to Wall Street, but do you really see nothing wrong with our government shunning such a huge segment of our economy? Because, no offence, it’s a stupid suggestion.)

Personally, I disagree that this is the “only” way to build public support for a policy, although I do think it’s the only way a lot of folks know how to build said support. I also think that, as John Oliver has demonstrated on this and other issues, taking the time to help the public really understand something yields far more powerful/influential support than trying to con your folks into backing you with soundbites. But doing that sort of thing is hard and takes time and, the sad fact is: as long as, we as a society allow ourselves to be swayed by simple sounding soundbites, the more we encourage leaders to employ them. And the more we encourage them, the less the words we use to talk about politics and policy will have anything to do with the reality of those things, until — — as is increasingly the case — what we think we know about our government and the policies it enacts bears no resemblance to reality.

So, stop falling for this shit, OK?

Or — at the very least — don’t let Ajit Pai’s con you into letting him gut Net Neutrality.

The FCC is now accepting public comments on its proposal. If you’d like to leave a comment, TechCrunch explains how you can do that here:

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