The net neutrality farce: From the start, the concept has been based on a flawed foundation

For the sixth time in the last decade, U.S. rules on “network neutrality” are set to flip. The controversial policy — first imposed by the Federal Communications Commission under Bush 43, then struck down by federal courts, then re-imposed under President Obama, then overturned again, then imposed yet again — is now slated for demolition by Ajit Pai, the FCC head appointed by President Trump.

Despite the enduring tempest in a violently bubbly teapot, the arguments are still a mish mash.

In a public radio debate not long ago, Tom Wheeler — who led the FCC from 2013 until early this year — argued for net neutrality regulations to protect subscribers from anti-competitive actions by their Internet Service Providers (ISPs). He asserted that the rules would protect internet start-ups of the future, singling out AOL as his historical example.

It was a stunning misdirection.

In the 1990s, America Online was a pioneer in dial-up service, aggressively marketing subscriptions in easy-to-use formats. While Silicon Valley techies mocked it as your grandma’s internet, AOL distributed some 250 million sign-up disks in 1996 alone, virtually creating the mass market in computer networks.

Yet AOL’s foray only became possible when regulators in the 1980s peeled back “Title II” mandates, the very regulations that Wheeler’s FCC imposed on broadband providers in 2015. The FCC noted in a 1999 paper that the newly “unregulated status of Internet Service Providers” gave AOL its opportunity — otherwise “the tens of millions of Americans today who enjoy unlimited use of the Internet for around $20 a month, and who invest, shop, learn and otherwise benefit from home Internet access, might never have experienced this extraordinary tool.”

But wait — there’s more. AOL offered a curated service featuring proprietary content. This “walled garden” attracted the ire of network neutrality champions, who sought to block it by law. Yet AOL’s experiment started small and grew huge, discovering progressively better ways to serve consumers. Wheeler’s chosen example of innovation demonstrates how dangerous it is to impose one particular platform, freezing business models in place.

Read more of this New York Daily News op-ed by Thomas Hazlett by clicking here.

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images