Opinion

SLOAN: Over-hyped ‘net neutrality’ is a solution in search of problem

Author: Kelly Sloan - February 28, 2018 - Updated: February 28, 2018

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Kelly Sloan

A few weeks ago, Burger King put out an internet ad in which the company attempted to demonstrate the concept of “net neutrality” using their product. The premise was the store’s customers being told that if they were willing to pay a surcharge – up to $26 – they would receive their Whopper faster. Those unwilling to pay would have to wait, as much as 20 minutes in some cases.

The ploy, of course, was to show how terribly unfair it was for the current FCC Chairman Anjit Pai to rollback a 2015 rule that pulled the internet into the protective womb of the federal government. In case anybody missed the overt political jab, the ad concluded with a shot of the company’s king mascot drinking from the same oversize Reece’s mug from which Mr. Pai has been famously known to sip.

Burger King’s marketing team no doubt patted themselves on the back for their little incursion into the policy world, successfully exploiting the Cause of the Day for fifteen more minutes of internet fame and probably an uptick in sales from hungry John Oliver fans.

But the bit also inadvertently did a good job of demonstrating the absurdity of the “net neutrality” argument, and why Mr. Pai’s decision was the correct one. The customers on the video were, of course, outraged at the notion of paying a premium to get their sandwich faster. So they turned on their heels, left the store and presumably went a block away to McDonalds or Wendy’s. Naturally, Burger King didn’t keep the schtick going for longer than necessary to film their ad. Miraculously, the FDA didn’t have to step in to regulate the fast food industry. Reality isn’t much different in the realm of internet service.

Net neutrality may be the most obnoxious example of a solution in search of a problem we find in the policy world today, but it is nevertheless an issue which inheres an ability to get certain people almost fanatically exercised. Enough so to warrant the Obama administration leave to bring the internet under federal control in 2015 by dusting off an old 1920’s-era public utility rule and bypassing Congress.

The result wasn’t especially surprising — nothing changed except investment in internet related technology, research, and development came to a virtual halt.

Now, as much as the Burger King spot shows why the perceived problem doesn’t happen in the real world, it also demonstrates that people would hate it if it did, perhaps warranting legislative attention short of nationalization.

For all its faults, the Trump administration at least seems to realize that the executive branch is not the place to legislate. When it put the internet back into the anarchic world of pre-2015, it left the door open for Congress to do its job and fix the, ahem, problem. Colorado’s own Mike Coffman is among those who has offered to look at the issue and help draft legislation to deal with it properly, rather than let it be pulled in and out of federal control every time a new president is sworn in.

Given that there exists at least some level of public infatuation over net neutrality, and the fact that he is working on the issue, one would think that that might be a topic of discussion at townhall meeting put on by the very same Rep. Coffman.

Don’t be silly.

Last week the congressman held a townhall meeting, presumably as a test of his forbearance, and that of his beleaguered but ever professional staff. The assembled crowd was a representative cross-section of his districts angriest fringe left, cleverly disguised as a spontaneous gathering of concerned citizens by all arriving with identical pre-made little hand signs. The questions were all variations on a theme – this time, of course, guns – and any attempt by Mr. Coffman to rationally explain a policy issue was shouted down on cue.

It was about as useful a forum for discussing public policy as Senator Gardner’s town hall was a few months ago.

Honestly, for the life of me I don’t understand why elected officials continue to put themselves through that. Even the media have expressed disgust over what was once a useful tool for faithfully reporting back to the governed and hearing their concerns, devolving into a shameless theatrical political tool for use by the activist class to do nothing more than shame and ridicule for 15 seconds of political internet fame.

I mean, don’t we have Burger King for that?

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist based in Denver. He is also an energy and environmental policy fellow at Centennial Institute.