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October 22, 2014

Net Neutrality: Is It About Competition, or About ‘Everything’?

The way FTC commissioner Joshua D. Wright sees it, the issue of net neutrality is fundamentally about competition. Ask Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, though, and he’ll tell you it’s about much more than that.

The disagreement cropped up during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on whether antitrust law would be a better mechanism for enforcing an open Internet framework than regulation by the FCC.

“Net neutrality is about the fear that broadband providers will enter into business arrangements that disadvantage certain content providers, harm competition and thereby leave consumers and Internet users worse off,” said Wright, who was a law professor at George Mason University before joining the FTC and also has his Ph.D. in economics.  In his prepared remarks, he said enforcing existing antitrust law would better serve consumers in the broadband market. Wright has previously argued that the FTC is well-suited for net neutrality oversight.

“I think the debate is about how competition in the broadband sector impacts Internet users,” Wright told Technocrat after the hearing. And in that sense, the “net neutrality debate is fundamentally one about competition,” he said.

But Wu argues that the issue’s about much more than competition. “It’s about everything,” he said.

“When we consider Internet policy, what we’re really considering is not merely  economic policy, not merely competition policy, but also media policy, social policy, oversight of the political process, issues of free speech,” he said. “There are a wide range of non-economic values that I fear that the antitrust law… simply does not capture.”

He said that some of the most valuable uses of the Internet aren’t economic, like sending photos to grandparents. That doesn’t show up in economic analyses, said Wu, who coined the term net neutrality and said the issue should stay within the FCC’s jurisdiction.

“There’s more to consumers’ lives than competition,” Wu told Technocrat after the hearing. “I mean, this is kind of an economist’s way of seeing the world. But its not the way most Americans see the world. Most Americans, there is more to life than competition, they care about diversity of content.”

After the hearing, Wright said issues like the ability of people to participate in the political process or the amount of content they can access can be implicated by the net neutrality debate, but said “those are at heart issues of how competition affects Internet users. The antitrust law’s about consumer welfare.”

“I just disagree with that,” Wu said.

Diversity of content and open access to the Internet are “not captured by this narrow term competition,” he said.

  • Scott Smith

    Since it is hard to see how instinct restraint enables civilization, the morals that restrain our primitive instincts tend to be despised.

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