A Strong Position on Neutrality

When we visit a grocery store, we can expect Kellogg’s breakfast cereals to be taking up a lot more shelf space than those of its smaller rivals. The big guys tend to have access to the best distribution channels.

On the Internet, though, a start-up website created by a guy sitting at home in his underwear has a real shot at going head-to-head with a much bigger rival, secure in the knowledge that his offerings can show up just as clearly and quickly as a far larger and more established site. This is what Eduardo Porter, who worries today in a New York Times column about the danger of losing Internet neutrality, wants to protect.

Companies offering broadband access, Porter suggests, should not be allowed to discriminate among services online. “If they did, the best service would not always win the day,” Porter writes. Instead, the winners would be those in the best position to cut a deal with AT&T, Verizon, Comcast or Time Warner—in other words, those with the deepest pockets and most clout.

In his book The New RealitiesPeter Drucker noted that government regulation is sometimes required to keep the big players from smothering the small ones. Among the most complicated and controversial of government functions, Drucker wrote, is “to maintain what we today call a ‘level playing field.’ Government can set ground rules that are equally binding on everybody.”

In this respect, government “should be a good deal more activist than 19th-century liberals such as Herbert Spencer preached and wanted,” according to Drucker.

But, as we’ve noted previously, Drucker also strongly counseled businesses to rein themselves in. Wherever the elimination of a negative impact to society “requires a restriction,” Drucker wrote, “regulation is in the interest of business, and especially in the interest of responsible business.”

If an enterprise forgets this, it’s liable to generate public outrage—perhaps not immediately, but eventually—that results in punitive regulation. “If our social impacts are not right, it is the responsibility of the company to educate the customer and society so that the negative impact can be eliminated,” Drucker wrote. “The fact that today the public sees no issue is not relevant.”

What do you think: Should companies offering broadband access work to preserve Internet neutrality—for their own good, as well as for ours?