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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Internet Red Scare

Posted By on Tue, Jul 10, 2012 at 9:45 AM

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Congressman Ron Paul's Campaign for Liberty organization sounds like it's worried that Commies, or maybe Russian-style state capitalists, are plotting to take over the Internet. In a manifesto issued last week, the group warns that "the road to tyranny is being paved by a collectivist-Industrial complex -- a dangerous brew of wealthy, international NGOs, progressive do-gooders, corporate cronies and sympathetic political elites."

Away with antitrust enforcement, the manifesto proclaims. Away with Net Neutrality. Away with restrictions on "private property rights on the Internet." Away with laws governing what companies can do with our personal data.

Titled "The Technology Revolution: A Campaign for Liberty Manifesto," the document is filled mainly with platitudes about liberty and free markets (as well as lots of grammatical errors and typos.) Ironic scare quotes abound -- for example, around the word "openness" and the phrase "the public interest."

The document offers few specific examples of government overreach and the harms caused thereby. It's just an emotional expression of the default notion, "government bad." For example, "Net Neutrality" (also in quotes) rules are bad because they depend on the "government acting as arbiter and enforcer of what it deems to be neutral."

Net Neutrality, though, isn't quite as open to interpretation as the manifesto makes it sound. In part, it means preventing Internet service providers from favoring some traffic over other traffic, thereby gaining an unfair advantage. If Comcast, which owns NBC, decided to restrict its Internet customers' access to Netflix traffic while freeing up access to NBC shows, that would violate Net Neutrality rules. Those rules exist to prevent the accumulation of power over Internet traffic in the hands of companies that would wield that power to their own advantage and to the disadvantage of competitors. The manifesto also puts "competition" in scare quotes when it refers to how Ron Paul's ideological opponents use the word, but not when it extols, in vague terms, the virtues of a competitive marketplace.

The coiner of the term Net Neutrality, Tim Wu, is himself a libertarian, but one who is concerned with the concentration of power in too few hands, whether those hands are governmental or corporate.

As Wu has demonstrated, a competitive marketplace can't exist without some basic laws protecting it. An entirely hands-off government would almost certainly lead to giant companies determining who wins and who loses on the Internet. As always, dumb and dangerous laws and regulations must be guarded against, as must governmental overreach (Paul and his supporters were rightly opposed to SOPA, for example). But many libertarians seem to think that corporate power is by its nature somehow better than government power -- which at least has a chance of being challenged by the citizenry.

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Dan Mitchell

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