Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Role of Government in an Open World

The recent flurry of attention on net neutrality has gotten me thinking about the proper role of government in society. For those of you in who missed it, Google and Verizon recently released a joint proposal for how the FCC should regulate net neutrality. The proposal leaves wireless Internet out of any requirement for neutrality, effectively killing the whole point of neutrality in the first place.

Now, I have been somewhat skeptical of the FCC regulating the Internet. We need only look at the stringent censorship that happens on our public airwaves to be VERY wary of the government having any authority over the Internet. However, net neutrality isn't about making sure Americans don't see Janet Jackson's nipple while trying to enjoy the Super Bowl. It is fundamentally about making sure that the "tubes" of the Internet don't discriminate against content, no matter the source or how offensive it may be. To me, this seems like the exact opposite kind of protection than that afforded by the "decency police."

Think how differently government would behave if its primary mission was ensuring open access to the fundamental infrastructure that enables complex society. Whether it be the airwaves or money itself, these communications platforms have largely fallen into private hands. The government's current role is to vigorously protect and prolong the enclosure. Doesn't this seem to be the exact opposite of the appropriate role of government in democratic society?

Now, in no way, am I proposing some totalitarian communist nightmare. In fact the exact opposite. In a totalitarian state the government has full control of societal infrastructure. I am not talking about control. I am talking about the preservation of no control.

Consider roads. Most everyone agrees that roads shouldn't be controlled by private companies. They are far too integral to society. If private companies controlled the roads, they could make deals with auto makers to only allow certain brands of cars to use them. This would be a major impediment to the functioning of society. The government's role is to ensure that the roads remain an open platform for transportation. In other words, for roads to be functional as infrastructure, they must not be overly controlled. Notice that in no way does this mean that car companies should be run by the government. It just means that for car companies to be in a free and open market, roads must be in the public domain.

Think of how much infrastructure there is in society that is similar to this. The airwaves, the Internet, payment networks, money itself, etc. Much of this infrastructure has fallen under the control of those who don't have society's best interests at heart. I put to you that the primary function of government should be to ensure open access to basic social infrastructure.

What's more, this foundational principle should be formalized in the Constitution. This would mean the FCC would stop being the decency police, and start doing its only legitimate job. This would mean that intellectual property rights would be rewritten to ensure that drug companies can't price gauge for life saving medicines. This would mean that banks would lose their monopoly on legal tender. This would mean that payment networks (like Visa or MasterCard) would have to ensure open access for other types of currency as well. This would mean that net neutrality was constitutionally guaranteed.

Put that in your libertarian pipe and smoke it.

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