Why net neutrality is our friend

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President Donald Trump kept his promise. He said he’d “drain the swamp” in Washington. He has. What he didn’t tell us was that he would then fill his administration with the creatures that crawled out.

The news media and late night shows have reveled in their good fortune. Trump has provided them a daily flow of stories both entertaining and terrifying to move their audiences between tears and laughter.

But as a result, that 99 percent-plus of the federal government that’s not in the White House is mostly ignored by the media.

Farmers worry over the loss of overseas markets from Trump trade agreements. Public schools must deal with the loss of revenue from school vouchers. The oil and gas industry cheers a removal of regulations that rivals the Teapot Dome scandal that sent one of President Warren Harding’s cabinet members to prison.

And my old agency, now Trump’s Federal Communications Commission, is going about repealing the consumer protection called Network Neutrality. You don’t need to know anything about computers or the Internet to understand that one.

You do need to understand monopoly capitalism.

Most cities of any size have an abundant array of restaurants from which to choose – locations, menus, prices, and atmosphere. Aside from health concerns, “marketplace forces” provide adequate consumer protection.

By contrast, with rare exception most neighborhoods in those cities have no choice among monopolist internet service providers, such as Mediacom.

It’s the business of business to maximize profits by increasing prices and cutting costs (quality and services) until both reach optimum levels.

In a conversation with Chicago economist Milton Friedman he used the example of corporate pollution of rivers. “You are appealing to them to be ethical,” he said. “They can’t afford to be ethical. They can afford to comply with a law that’s equally applicable to their competitors. Your answer is in Congress and state legislatures, not preaching in the streets.”

If an Internet service provider (ISP) also profits from distributing content it owns, it can make more money by censoring a competitor’s content, charging more for it, or slowing its delivery to your TV. If it doesn’t own content providers, it can bargain with those who are, providing them unfair advantages for the right price. And the ISP will set your monthly bill at the optimum profit-maximizing level.

Harm to consumers will be limited only by the ISP’s imagination.

Once cities have as many ISPs as restaurants we can talk about “marketplace regulation.” Meanwhile, common decency requires that the FCC retain the consumer protection of Network Neutrality.

• Nicholas Johnson of Iowa City is a former federal communications commissioner who maintains www.nicholasjohnson.org. Contact: mailbox@nicholasjohnson.org

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