Railroads, superhighways, and the fight for fair access

How can we save Net neutrality from today's robber barons? By looking at strategies against yesterday's robber barons

I recently witnessed a fictional bar fight between a proponent of Net neutrality and a telecom exec, the two diametrically opposed in their views on the issue of the hour. At the end of that fiction, I concluded that both will succeed to some degree and balance each other out (probably for the worse), and we should sit and watch. While I continue to believe in this sad reality, it was pointed out to me that this is, after all, an opinion column, and as far as those go, that specific stance might be characterized as vague and limp, like Tampa Bay football.

Duly noted -- now for a nonflaccid opinion, I'd like to refer to a recent article in The Verge, written by Nilay Patel, entitled "The Internet is [expletive]" (three guesses on the missing word). Patel's take was very popular for a few days, and its main thrust was that the FCC's recent Net neutrality neutering was awful and insane, and unless we reverse it, the Web is doomed to decline and customers will suffer like those pale little kids I met in Taipei who asked me what the sun was.

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A piece by Devin Coldewey, winningly entitled, "More?" popped up in response to that article. In it, Coldewey tried to sound like he supported most of Patel's conclusions, but ultimately disagreed with his main thesis. The article argued that we don't need the Internet to survive; therefore, it shouldn't be regulated like utilities such as water, electricity, or the railroad.

Straight talk

These are the two basic arguments for and against Net neutrality via government regulation. (Yes, I'm oversimplifying -- deal with it.) My non-fence-straddling opinion? Those opposed to that idea of the Internet as a basic utility that shouldn't be regulated by our not-so-technically-smart Uncle Sam are imbibing fantastic hallucinogens. (Also, they need to share with the rest of us.)

That opinion was easy to formulate now that we've caught an eight-week glimpse of what happens when we let the Internet progress solely on "free" market principles. In that short span, we've seen our filthy rich data barons scramble to take advantage before Net neutrality's corpse is even cold. Left to its own devices, the market is moved by greed and greed alone, not what's best for customers. That's fine for vacuum cleaners, gourmet coffee, and digital condoms, but it's not fine for what we need every day: warmth, power, and yes, the Web.

Blood on the tracks
Both sides keep mentioning the history of U.S. rail service to back up their side of the argument. That's completely inaccurate for the nonregulation argument. The Internet will likely proceed exactly as the railroad has, and that's blatantly, obviously, take-your-head-out-of-your-nethers positive news. At the start of the railroad game, there were basically two players. If you're wondering if that was a bad thing, I'd like to point out that if you research the origins of the phrase "robber baron," early U.S. railroad development will pop up very quickly.

Those previous robber baron days led to few choices and high rates for customers, in turn resulting in a government rate-setting scheme between 1910 and 1921 led by the Interstate Commerce Commission. Railroads complained this often got in the way of their profits, but again, let's point out that the term "profits" even then was being uttered by the same robber barons who felt (1) they needed mansions with private zoos and (2) inbreeding was a good idea.

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