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Net Neutrality vs. Internet Freedom: An Even Playing Field or a Restriction of Property Rights?

by Marina Evans

Father and son political team Ron and Rand Paul are shifting gears from battling the Federal Reserve to new terrain: the Internet. The Campaign for Liberty’s latest manifesto, “The Technology Revolution,” takes a firm stance on the principles of Net Neutrality, claiming that government-regulated Internet access impinges both upon an individual’s property rights, as well as upon the perceived rights of the industry to regulate itself. The manifesto claims that The Technology Revolution – where individual genius experiments and innovates in a free market, unfettered by government subsidies and regulations – is already occurring worldwide “in the private sector, not the public sector” and in spite of “wrongheaded attempts by governments to micromanage markets through disastrous industrial policy.”

The manifesto sharply criticizes both government control of the Internet as well as liberal internet collectivists, describing them as “masters at hijacking the language of freedom and liberty to disingenuously push for more centralized control.” The manifesto serves as a conservative take on the Declaration of Internet Freedom, released this week by the groupFreePress, and claims that for such internet collectivists “‘Openness’ means government control of privately owned infrastructure,” and “‘Net neutrality’ means government acting as arbiter and enforcer of what it deems to be neutral.”

FreePress, on the other hand, argues that privatization of Internet access leads to unfair competition and discrimination, as Internet providers can limit or compromise access to the websites and applications of their competitors. At FreePress, “Net Neutrality means that Internet service providers may not discriminate between different kinds of content and applications online.” Without regulations, FreePress maintains, private ISPs could stifle the creative online economy by limiting online find-ability and accessibility to their corporate partners or to the major corporations that can afford to purchase prime real estate on the web. As a result, internet entrepreneurs and innovators are effectively muscled out by wealthy corporations – and this is not conducive to a free, growing market.

The debate goes back to the early days, when the Internet was built by the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as an acephalous global network of networks to enable human communication following a nuclear strike. Back then, the commercialism conflict was defined as “the net heads” (true ISPs like The World and EUnet, run by geeks) against “the bell heads” (for-profit phone companies run by businessmen seeking monopolies). Initially, the Net existed largely in universities and governments, where the hive mind was born of genius, collaboration, and volunteerism. In those early days, the Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) forbade sullying the network with even the talk of filthy lucre; in a meritocracy of mind one doesn’t email an invoice or swipe a credit card. But the Bell Heads won, the Net went private, and now here comes the Paul Duo to heat up the debate yet once more.

Today’s news story bears some parallels to the recent debate over price fixing in the publishing industry. Were Apple and the big 5 book publishers colluding to set prices in order to inhibit an otherwise free market, or were they banding together to defend themselves against the industry giant Amazon, whose powerful quasi monopoly on e-commerce leaves little room for competition? It is unclear whether theU.S. Justice Department’s decision to sue Apple and the big 5 aligns with the Campaign for Liberty or the FreePress perspectives – are they supporting Amazon’s property rights in suing its competitors for collusion, or are they protecting smaller e-businesses from unfair competition? The issue of Net Neutrality vs. Internet Freedom is sure to play a role in this year’s U.S. Presidential elections and beyond, perhaps even leading to the dawn of the Undernet, a new interoperable network of networks built and maintained by volunteers and independent of both governmental and corporate controls.

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