The Pebble and the Avalanche

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Current Revolutions in Business and Technology

by Dr. Moshe Yudkowsky,

author of The Pebble and The Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions


Tue, 2010-Dec-21, 12:58

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Net Neutrality: The FCC's Life Preserver

During Britain's war against Napoleon in the 1800's, with France poised to invade England, the British military established an important job. A watchman would stand, looking out across the English Channel, and if the French fleet were to approach his job was to ring an alarm bell.

This job was abolished in 1945.

Nothing is quite as resilient to time and changing circumstances as a government agency. No matter if the original mission vanishes: the agency will attempt to find a new mission. For example, now that all of rural American has electicity, did you ever wonder what happened to the Federal agency in charge of "promoting" rural electrification? Hint: it's now part of a larger organization proving equally redundant services.

Today's hearing by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may seem to be about "net neutrality," but the subtext is about the FCC itself. The FCC's predecessor organization came into existence almost a hundred years ago to reglate what was then thought to be a scarce resource, the radio spectrum; the FCC also regulates telecommunications.

Pity the poor FCC. Just maybe the idea of radio spectrum allocation made sense back then; regulating the AT&T telecommunications near-monopoly never did. And today, with — at my last count — over seven hundred long-distance companies in the US, the monopoly days are over and FCC control makes even less sense. As more telecommunications migrates to the Internet, we've got all the telecommunications we can possibly want and ten times more besides. The FCC, which regulates scarcity, is drowning in abundance with no reasonable mission.

Hence the lastest go-round with "net neutrality." By seizing control of Internet operations — by dictating how traffic will flow, what prices will be charged, who gets to use the Internet and how — the FCC will have a new, more powerful, and vastly longer-lived empire. Forget Google, Verizon, and the rest; they're pawns in the FCC's institutional chess game. Bureaucrats will expand their empires and, when retirement beckons, escape into the private sector to consult on how to live with the regulations they themselves promulgated.

As for the collaborators in this FCC power grab: If you can afford the paperwork and the lawyers, if you know how to play the regulatory game, then you can support "net neutrality" rules no matter what they are and game the system to hobble your competitors. The rest of us, who don't have the time or money to file endless forms with the FCC, who don't have the resources to fight back against bureaucratic interference, who won't be able to evade censorship: we're the ones who will suffer as abundance turns to scarcity and opportunity turns to dust.

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