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FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR

The ISPs Should Blame Themselves for Net Neutrality

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First of all, let me say that Net Neutrality is a bad policy that is a) unfair to the ISPs and b) likely to lead to higher rates and lower performance for Internet service. Republicans ought to seek to overturn it as soon as possible either legislatively or through changing the composition of the FCC.

With that out of the way, to the extent that the ISPs themselves were opposed to Net Neutrality, they have only (or at least mostly) themselves to blame for its existence. Let me explain.

Home/residential ISPs have, for years, operated as a regulated monopoly and have fought tooth and nail within the regulatory framework to keep that status. Companies like Comcast and Charter have lobbied and spent millions on ad campaigns to protect their legal status as a regulated monopoly so that the government would insulate them from competition. They have donated massive sums of cash over the years to prevent competitors like Uverse from moving into their areas of influence and have been some of the most abusive rent-seekers in America.

Having used the power of the government to shield themselves from meaningful competition, they immediately set about providing the most horrible customer service imaginable. Since they faced no competition, they showed a callous indifference to the needs and wants of their customers that would have made AT&T execs in the 1980s blush. Survey after survey of most hated companies in America and worst customer service in America have for years put the ISPs at the head of the pack with a very healthy lead.

Now, just because you give bad customer service does not justify the government from essentially taking the property of the ISPs. But whereas a normal industry would face the consequence of a mass exodus of customers in response to bad customer service, Comcast has largely prevented that from happening through the use of government force. But in the words of a pretty smart guy, those who live by the sword die by the sword.

Populist mobs are not very good at nuanced policy analysis and the current one that led to the imposition of Net Neutrality has not considered the long term consequences of this particular instance of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Quite frankly, all people are thinking about right now is how much they hate Comcast and Charter and how much they like Netflix. And given decades of pent up anger at Comcast, combined with inability for meaningful alternatives for service, they are going to support someone “sticking it to” Comcast (even though, frankly, the imposition of Net Neutrality just means Comcast and Charter will eventually either slow speeds for everyone or incorporate it into their rate structure, most likely).

If the ISPs didn’t want Net Neutrality, this might be a good time for them to have a loyal customer base to appeal to with an impassioned plea about how Net Neutrality will affect their service. Instead what the ISPs have is a sullen and angry mob of customers who are resentful of the fact that they even have to BE customers of the companies at issue, and are completely unwilling to trust what the ISPs have to say about the matter (any more than they trust the ridiculous “appointment windows”).

If you’re looking for someone to blame for this Net Neutrality mess, you can blame the Democrats if you want. But the Democrats are just capitalizing on cheap anger generated through well-earned contempt at the ISPs. They’re the ones who should shoulder the first instance of the blame.

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