Riding the net neutrality see-saw
Religion & Liberty Online

Riding the net neutrality see-saw

This week, I was one of several commenters consulted in Nicholas Wolfram Smith’s article “FCC Repeal of Net Neutrality Leads to Lively Fight” for the National Catholic Register.

I think Smith did a fine job conveying my primary concern:

But according to Dylan Pahman, a researcher and managing editor of Acton Institute’s Journal of Markets & Morality, one of the problems with the 2015 net neutrality regulations was that it gave the government far too much regulatory power over ISPs. At the same time, Pahman said, net neutrality has admirable aspects, particularly in preventing ISPs from colluding with other websites to stifle competitors. In that sense, he said net neutrality as a principle helps preserve “an open field of competition.”

But, said Pahman, “My major concern is not so much net neutrality per se, but, rather, how the back-and-forth is going to affect us,” he said. “I see no strong indication that we’re going to get away from that.[”] He expressed concern that a see-sawing regulatory environment will harm innovation and economic dynamism by making it impossible for companies to plan with any certainty for the future.

Too little attention has been given to this point. Whether we keep net neutrality or throw it out, as the FCC recently did, we need to factor in the negative effect of shifting the regulatory environment every election cycle.

If Democrats take back Congress this fall, which is possible, we are likely to see another effort to swing the pendulum back again. It might actually take them winning the presidency in 2020 and appointing their own FCC chairperson to get there, the possibility of which I won’t speculate on, but the point remains that in just a few years, perhaps even next year, we may see yet another shift in how the federal government regulates ISPs.

And if, after that, Republicans take control again — which is basically how American politics works — we’ll likely see yet another swing back away from any form of net neutrality.

Rapid, back-and-forth changing of regulations can take its toll. Regulatory compliance can be costly, and the possibility that we will keep riding the net neutrality see-saw for the foreseeable future means that ISPs and other businesses in related fields will face greater uncertainty due to the volatility of laws governing how they do business. As Smith put it, “a see-sawing regulatory environment [may] harm innovation and economic dynamism by making it impossible for companies to plan with any certainty for the future.”

There are unseen costs to our politics, even when we achieve what we believe to be a victory for sound policy. If that policy is fragile to shifting political power every election cycle, that seeming victory may be short-lived, and what seemed like an opportunity at the time may prove to have been a distraction in the long run. Is there a marginal benefit to reforming broadband regulation vis-à-vis criminal justice or drug policy or foreign aid or entitlement spending or any other potentially longer-lasting policy goals?

Scoring a “win” on an issue that has become politicized only opens one to the inevitability that, in a democracy at least, one’s party will not always be in control. Then what? Of course, sometimes it may be worthwhile anyway, but we should probably be wary of such hot-button, see-saw issues and give more attention to those that might see some cross-party support and compromise and, thus, longer-lasting improvements to our social contract.

Interested in more on net neutrality?

You can read Smith’s article here.

And you can read a round-up of Acton’s content on the subject from 2015 here.

Cover image: Fragonard, The See-Saw, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.