Current Affairs

Should the web be nationalized?

On TechCrunch today the question of whether or not to nationalize the internet. Some debate over there but mostly your typical web-geek, libertarian knee-jerk response. No government regulation of anything for those folks! I think they’d abolish traffic signals if they could. But the point is that this position is fundamentally deluded.

There are not modern markets without government regulation. Let me throw some "P" words at you: private property, police, prisons. The market without governments is the one where I don’t pay my mortgage and I walk into the supermarket and take whatever I want. A sizable chunk of our economy is founded on copyright and patents. Try doing that without a government. I believe the libertarian mental error lies in the belief in certain "natural rights" that governments might restrict but by definition cannot provide. Somehow they imagine private property is a natural right I think.

But private property can’t be a natural right. Clubbing any sucker who steps into territory you think is yours might be a "natural prerogative," but since the concept of ownership doesn’t even extend to ever culture… but I digress. The point is that modern markets, at least, function on rights of ownership. Those are defined by the government, and they are secured by govt institutions. So what can be owned and what rights an owner may have are issues regulated by the government. The bottom line is that the issue can never be whether or not to have government regulation, but rather what kind of regulation you want.

Of course in the global economy, national governments are only players. Even within the national economy the government is turned inside-out and made part of the market by giant corporations, industries, and other deep-pocket interests. I totally understand complaints about bureaucracy and inefficiency but part of it is the mockery the market has made of the government.

Personally, I would like to see web access be fast, cheap/free, and broadly accessible. I also want to have as much freedom as possible in my use of that access. Now it’s hardly the most important social issue in the world, but it’s not unimportant either. Sadly though everyone pretty much agrees on these goals, we enter an ideological debate over how to get there. And the debate has nothing to do with the internet. Those who are opposed to govt regulation are opposed to it in virtually every instance.

Why can’t we frame the debate in a different way? Why not start by talking about what actually needs to be done and then start figuring out who might be best to do those things? Maybe some things might be better done by the govt and others by private interests.

Here’s my strictly personal perspective. What would it take for all my students to have high-speed internet access for their online courses? Most do, but not all. Some don’t have access where they live. Clearly there’s little or no commercial incentive to reach them. But if the govt is going to go out and lay that wire (or pay for it to be laid in some way–tax breaks, grants, whatever) so that those folks can become paying customers of TimeWarner or Verizon or whoever will provide them access, as a citizen I want something in return from those corporate interests.