To Save Net Neutrality, Start Talking About Free Markets

Net neutrality needs a better name. That was the conclusion this week of my colleague Caroline Winter. It’s an important issue with potentially far-reaching consequences and terrible branding. She spoke to a branding expert who recommended “Internet equality.”

I offer my own suggestion: the tariff-free Internet.

Think of the Internet as a vast free-trade agreement. Broadband providers are like countries. Each, through its own wires, controls access to a domestic market for customer: Verizonia, Comcastchatka. And each, until now, has refrained from charging tariffs on the products that cross its borders. If you run a Web-based streaming service, you can get to your customers in the heart of Verizonia without stopping at the border to pay tribute.

This has been true until now for a variety of reasons. Some early attempts at completely closed online economies, such as AOL and Prodigy, failed. When compared to the growing Internet of the mid-1990s, they just weren’t nearly as good at providing all the rich services of an open economy. In all other developed countries (actual countries, not metaphorical ones), regulation has kept more broadband providers in the market. In a competitive broadband market, ISPs can’t slow anything on its way in because that’s not what customers want.

In the U.S., the FCC and various ISPs have been kicking regulations and lawsuits back and forth for close to a decade now, discouraging broadband providers from being too bold. But as with countries, unless there’s an official free-trade agreement in place, there’s always temptation to put up a tariff. First, it can protect domestic industries. Second, it’s easy money. There’s little practical difference between a tariff and highway robbery. You stop someone because you can, and you take some money.

A couple of years ago it looked as if Verizon and Comcast were more interested in raising tariffs to protect their own streaming services. But Netflix and Hulu have so convincingly demonstrated a more appealing product that broadband providers now appear much more focused on the second reason for controlling traffic: because they can.

“Neutrality” and, I think, “equality” fail to inspire because America speaks the language of the market. We don’t really care if things are fair or—particularly—if they are even equal. But trade is sacred, and free trade even more so to the people on Capitol Hill who need to care more about this. In real life, barriers to trade lower living standards for all countries and deter innovation. That’s what they do on the Internet, too.

So keep your tariffs off of my Internet. Down with Comcastchatka!

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.