Tim Wu on Net Neutrality in Slate

Why you should care about network neutrality

What we’re ultimately asking is a question that Adam Smith struggled with. Is there something special about “carriers” and infrastructure—roads, canals, electric grids, trains, the Internet—that mandates special treatment? Since about the 17th century, there’s been a strong sense that basic transport networks should serve the public interest without discrimination.This might be because so much depends on them: They catalyze entire industries, meaning that gratuitous discrimination can have ripple effects across the nation. By this logic, so long as you think the Internet is more like a highway than a fried-chicken outlet, it should be neutral in what it carries.

This is the basic case for network neutrality—to prevent centralized control over the future of the Internet. But there’s a long-standing rebuttal that goes like this: A broadband company already has incentives to make the network neutral, because it’s a better network that way. If AT&T makes money on an exclusive deal, they’ll lose it somewhere else. Whatever money AT&T earns by prioritizing Google rather than Yahoo!, it will lose by making its product—broadband service—less attractive to consumers. By this logic, regulating the Bells is a waste of time. AT&T and Verizon also say that they must be free to discriminate to justify their investments in building networks. If you don’t let us discriminate, they say, we won’t build.

It’s true that the Bells might make extra cash by discriminating. But AT&T can extract cash in other ways, too, like charging its customers higher prices. I believe that it’s better to have consumers pay more for service than to have AT&T picking and choosing winners on the network. Both are a cost to the economy, but the latter is a double cost. It creates costs that are passed on to consumers anyhow, and it also distorts competition between eBay, Yahoo!, and the like. […]

Also from the NYTimes editorial page: Editorial: Keeping a Democratic Web