Is this what net neutrality is really about?

Recent congressional hearings held in the wake of the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) net neutrality ruling provide a glimpse into what is so deeply wrong with this regulation, and why so many activist groups were behind it.

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It's an aspect of this matter of which you were perhaps unaware while the FCC was considering its regulatory strategy. Perhaps you thought net neutrality meant what was said of it: that it was intended to prevent the blocking or throttling of websites, or of "paid prioritization."

Silly you. Actually, those were the interests of those companies — like Google and Netflix — that saw in governmental sway over the Internet commercial benefits for themselves. But what about those groups and individuals who had political or ideological interests, and who played such outsized roles in the deal?

You know, groups like Free Press, Media Matters, Public Knowledge and New America's Open Technology Institute? Or what about the large grant-giving foundations, like Ford, MacArthur, Knight and George Soros's Open Society Institute that, in addition to munificently funding third-party net neutrality activists, directly lobbied the FCC themselves?

It should now be clear, even to those who weren't paying attention earlier, that the primary interest these groups had, and have, in net neutrality is their desire to insinuate government in the regulation of speech on the Internet.

Consider, for instance, the comments of the policy counsel for the Open Technology Institute, as made in a piece published by The Hill just after the conclusion of House Judiciary Committee hearings on March 25:

Net neutrality is a pro-competition ideal, but competition alone cannot fully protect the values of Internet openness and freedom. A net neutrality regime that relies solely on antitrust analysis would be narrowly focused on pricing harms, such as those found in cartels and monopolies. Such a legal theory may prevent some paid prioritization schemes, but it cannot address the non-economic goals of net neutrality such as free speech, political participation and viewpoint diversity. [Emphasis added.]

Similarly, and as reported in an article in National Journal, "Rep. John Conyers [Mich.], the panel's top Democrat, argued that antitrust laws fail to address the 'non-economic goals of net neutrality, including the promotion of innovation and the protection of free speech and political debate.'"

Never mind for a minute that the FCC has no such mandate, and that were it to attempt to assert one (as it inevitably will), it would run headlong into First Amendment challenges based on the widely understood notion that government may not play such a role.

The really interesting thing is how little attention has been focused, by the media or FCC officials themselves, on this aspect of net neutrality. Indeed, a quick search of comments made by Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC, yields some vague (and inapposite) comments about net neutrality and free speech, but nowhere is there an indication that he, like the people quoted above, believes that the FCC now has authority, under its Net Neutrality Order, to ensure "viewpoint diversity" or "political debate."

So it would be a good thing, the next time Wheeler is hauled off to testify before Congress, if someone asks him that very question. Does he, or doesn't he, believe that net neutrality confers on the FCC some kind of regulatory authority over content posted on the Internet?

If he answers "no," that would be a healthy check on the ambitions of some of the pro-net neutrality crowd, while if he says "yes," we will have, for the first time, a clear view of what net neutrality was, and is, all about.

Maines is president of the Media Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes free speech, sound communications policies and excellence in journalism. The views expressed are those of Maines alone.

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