Let’s suppose you’re the mayor of a medieval village (read on—this really will go somewhere). The town commons is open for all to graze their sheep. One farmer has a sheep, fat as an elephant, with a particularly voracious appetite. She’s always getting in the way of the other sheep and leaves little for them to eat. If she keeps coming, in fact, the common will soon become a barren field of dirt. If you were a wise mayor, you would probably ban the fat gluttonous sheep from the commons—better to disadvantage this one farmer than to ruin the commons for all. In fact you aren’t really disadvantaging the owner of the fat sheep because in the end the common would be ruined for him too.
This is a variant of the well-known Tragedy of the Commons which is the cornerstone of modern environmental thinking not to mention much work in economics on the problem of externalities. The tragedy is that when people try to maximize their own well being they can actually make everyone—including themselves—worse off.
Now replace the commons with the Internet, and replace the fat gluttonous sheep with the people that consume massive amounts of bandwidths, and the farmer with the businesses that encourage those people to overgraze the Internet. Then you will have the debate over net neutrality. The ISPs want to be able to regulate—through prices or network policy—the piggish sheep. Like the farmer with the fat sheep, Web content providers such as Google don’t want ISPs like Comcast telling them what they or their users can do or be able to charge them differentially for it.
Unfortunately, the analogy ends with the FCC which—in a victory for bandwidth gluttons everywhere—is planning to slap Comcast for regulating the traffic coming from people who were consuming massive amounts of bandwidth for BitTorrent downloads. The FCC isn’t the wise mayor. Just like governments that have allowed the massive erosion of our common air, water and soil, the FCC is pushing a policy that in the end will make most Internet users worse off. Net neutrality leads to the tragedy of the commons.
If pushed to its logical limits it will make trolling around the Internet about as much fun as driving around midtown Manhattan.
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Filed Under: Cable, Regulation, consumers, Economics, Internet