Last week, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission announced his intention to eliminate net neutrality in furtherance of the White House’s conviction that Internet access should be an unregulated, private business activity. Many Americans who aren’t tech savvy don’t see this as a big deal. To the contrary, it is a big deal. Their ability to participate in society and the economy is about to get hurt.
To illustrate why this is so, let me analogize to a public benefit that all Americans value: access to electricity.
Imagine that access to electricity was handled the same way that access to the Internet will be under the FCC’s approach. Would you be happy with a situation where your ability to obtain electricity was limited to a single provider who could charge you whatever they wished, offer you whatever service level they thought appropriate, and limit your choice of alternatives?
We all know that electricity comes into your home through a single line owned by an electric company. Because of government regulations and investment, access to electricity is substantially universal around the United States. Innovative companies that provide electricity in new ways can get access to consumers and businesses. Profit is balanced against consumer access.
This didn’t happen by accident. The balancing of the interests of industry and society occurred because in the 20th century a broad societal consensus was reached. Electricity is essential to modern life, and all Americans should have fair access to it. Depending upon the circumstances, sometimes electricity was provided by government entities, sometimes by for-profit companies, and sometimes by cooperatives. Power produced by innovative and cost-efficient producers, such as solar, had to be carried over other companies’ transmission lines so it could reach consumers. The ability of the owners of those transmission lines to maximize profit was balanced against the social good that electricity provided to all.
The analogies to access to the Internet are striking. There are many parts of the United States where access to the Internet is not achievable solely on a for-profit basis, because the population density is too low, the geography too challenging, or the residents too poor. Many Americans with access are finding that they are not able to pay ever-increasing prices. Businesses grow ever more reliant on the Internet. School systems assume that their students have access at home. More and more of the information our citizens need to make informed decisions is delivered over the Internet.
In the second decade of the 21st century, it is becoming abundantly clear that access to the Internet is essential for our nation to grow and our citizens to participate in its abundance. The proposed changes to net neutrality suggest the Trump administration and many in Congress put their faith in the free market to provide the Internet access all Americans must have. Even though I am an investor and businessman, this is a circumstance where I think that this faith is misplaced. Why would for-profit Internet access businesses ever provide services or make investment decisions that aren’t based solely on maximizing profit?
Let’s not fool ourselves for the sake of adherence to ideology. Without some the introduction of other considerations imposed by regulation or government action, the Internet providers will not have any reason to modify their pursuit of maximum profits or provide uneconomic services. They are public companies, not social enterprises. But treating Internet access as a luxury and not a basic right is unfair to our citizens, to our business community, and ultimately to the country as a whole.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, our political leaders recognized that access to electricity required a balancing of commercial and social interests. In light of how essential access to the Internet is to the 21st century citizen, shouldn’t there be a similar balancing?
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of TandemNSI, a national community that connects innovators to government agencies. He is host of “What’s Working in Washington” on WFED, a program that highlights business and innovation, and he lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.