Phil Kerpen, net neutrality, and socialism: A post-mortem

I learned the hard way a few weeks ago how net neutrality can be equated with socialism, an argument that puzzles people who work on computer networks for a living and see networking as a big flow of electrons. I think it’s very important that we understand how this happens.

Here’s the tactic: Find a socialist who supports net neutrality. Anoint him the leader of the movement. Bingo, anyone who supports net neutrality follows him, and therefore is a communist.

Political lobbyist and Fox News contributor Phil Kerpen told me Robert W. McChesney was the leader of the net neutrality movement, and he sent me a quote in the form of a meme longer than the Third Epistle of St. John. Yet in a Google search for the key words from that quote, “net neutrality bring down media power structure,” I can’t find him. So then I tried Bing, where I found him quoted on a web site called sodahead.com, but I couldn’t find the primary source.

For the leader of a movement the size of net neutrality, he sure keeps a low profile. Google and Netflix are two multi-billion-dollar companies that support net neutrality. I’m sure it’s news to them that they’re taking orders from Robert W. McChesney.
I looked into McChesney. He’s a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign–arguably the birthplace of the modern Internet as we know it today–and a net neutrality activist.

I have a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and have worked as an IT professional for 20 years, so I found that interesting.

Net neutrality is something McChesney cares about, but one of several things. He’s definitely very liberal, but from reading his writings, he puts journalism above politics. When I read McChesney in context, rather than just cherry-picking quotes, the main argument I see in his work is that capitalism and democracy require balance, and be believes we’re off balance in the United States.

Mainly he’s critical of oligopoly, the idea of a small number of companies controlling an industry. Sometimes oligopoly is fairly harmless. Almost all kitchen appliances are made by Whirlpool, Electrolux (Frigidaire) or General Electric, and that doesn’t seem to be causing any problems. General Electric just sold its appliance business to Electrolux and I don’t see very many people complaining about it.

McChesney argues that oligopoly is a bigger problem in a city where three companies own all of the television stations, all of them own several radio stations and one of the same companies owns the newspaper. In that situation, they all cover the same thing and stories and issues get ignored.

As someone who took 37 hours of college-level journalism classes, I can tell you that’s a common view in the field of journalism, especially among journalism professors. They were worried about it 20 years ago and the trend has only accelerated in recent years.

McChesney also argues that if the government funded journalism, it would help encourage news coverage that is more broad and more fair. That’s a view I heard over and over again in the 1990s, and, to be fair, it doesn’t necessarily have to mean government ownership. It’s also unlikely to happen.

McChesney would not be a controversial figure at the University of Missouri. That’s why I find it rather amusing the Phil Kerpen and Glenn Beck and others think that McChesney is going to destroy the world. He’s a typical college professor. His views are well to the left of the mainstream, just like 90% of the tenured college professors I ever met.

Here’s the thing about college professors. A big part of their job description is to make you think about things you wouldn’t think about on your own. Some of those things may very well be things you don’t want to think about.

That’s why a lot of them tend to be eccentric, and some of them are outright lunatics. The worst professors I ever had were lunatics, and the best were about two steps away from lunacy. Generally speaking, the more sane and mainstream they were, the more mediocre they were.

That’s why I just can’t get worked up about Robert McChesney. He’s just a journalism professor. He doesn’t have an army of millions of socialist minions at his disposal. He lectures, writes, and answers the phone when politicians call him up for advice. He does what journalism professors are supposed to do.

Now, McChesney believes that if net neutrality happens it will break the oligopoly and reduce the power and influence of the large corporations that control the Internet and the media as a whole. It probably won’t happen as fast as he thinks it will happen. McChesney also believes that the media and society will become more liberal if that happens.

That’s the McChesney quote that Phil Kerpen is worked up about.

What I believe, and what the majority of my journalism professors believed, is that the media will more closely match society if it becomes less consolidated and concentrated. That means if society is conservative, the media will shift right. If society is liberal, the media will shift left.

I know Rush Limbaugh believes the majority of U.S. citizens are conservative. Phil Kerpen and Glenn Beck probably either agree or hope he’s right. If Rush Limbaugh is correct, then if Robert McChesney gets what he wants with net neutrality, the media and everything else will shift to the conservative side, and the conservative majority have nothing to worry about.

That’s why I think Robert McChesney is harmless. He has a theory that net neutrality would help socialism, but it’s just a theory. If it turns out he’s wrong about that, he’ll come up with another theory. That’s his job.

Now let’s talk about what net neutrality is and isn’t.

According to Kerpen, net neutrality is “a concept whose objective is to empower the federal government to ration and apportion Internet bandwidth as it sees fit, and to thereby control the Internet’s content.”

I’m an IT professional with a couple of certifications and 20 years of experience, so I know a little bit about the Internet. I’m far more qualified to give you a layman’s technical explanation of net neutrality than Phil Kerpen will ever be.

Consider your home router, the box that sits between your computer and your Internet connection. Your home router is rather neutral in the way it passes data. It doesn’t intentionally make foxnews.com slower than msnbc.com.

Net neutrality tells Internet Providers to do the same thing–that they can’t make an agreement with, say, MSNBC’s parent company to make foxnews.com slower thanmsnbc.com. Or the other way around.

In the real world, one of those sites may be slightly faster than the other for any number of reasons, and net neutrality doesn’t interfere with that either. A net-neutral Internet provider allows the subscriber to view anyone’s content just as fast as they can send it, with the limit being the speed of the subscriber’s Internet connection.

That’s it. No need to overcomplicate it.

Now, to be completely honest and transparent, I specialize in servers, not routers, so I asked colleagues who live and breath networks whether a neutral network is easier to implement and maintain than a non-neutral one. They confirmed that it is, which is why companies like Cisco oppose net neutrality. Make networking more complicated and they get to sell more stuff, at least in the short term. In the long run it may hurt them, but if they have the opportunity for a short-term sure thing, of course they’re going to support that.

If you actually like free markets–if you’re actually a capitalist and not an incumbent corporatist–net neutrality promotes free markets. The only people anti-net neutrality benefits are the existing oligopoly, because it allows them to use pricing to defeat disruptive technologies.

Let’s say a new startup company decides it wants to provide a Netflix-like service that promotes good old-fashioned wholesome American family values. It could show John Wayne movies and TV shows like Walker: Texas Ranger and Dukes of Hazzard, all on demand, and priced inexpensively so hard-working American families can afford it while still having enough money to support their churches and send their children to good schools. Under net neutrality, such an undertaking would have a better chance at surviving and catching on than it would right now.

The other argument against net neutrality is that it stops investment in infrastructure, but there’s no data to support that. In markets with one or two competitors, there is minimal investment in infrastructure. Internet speeds stay slow, or ramp up very slowly. In markets where an outside third competitor comes in, the incumbents find they can offer faster Internet after all. Then entrepreneurs move to that city and the economy booms. That’s why Chattanooga, Tennessee and Kansas City (both Missouri and Kansas) are growing at a faster rate than, say, St. Louis.

That’s how free markets are supposed to work. Competition drives investment and innovation, creating jobs and satisfied consumers. Everyone wins. Netflix is a $5 billion company that employs more than 2,000 people and it’s growing. We need more companies like that.

I don’t necessarily see breaking large media organizations back into smaller organizations as a loss either. If a city has five television stations suddenly owned by five companies, it means they have five news staffs instead of two or three, which means more jobs. Not only does it mean more jobs for journalists, but it also means more administrative jobs to support them. The last I checked, we could use a few more jobs.

Phil Kerpen argues–incorrectly–that net neutrality allows the government to control the Internet. But what Phil Kerpen advocates is allowing the most anti-consumer companies in the country to control the Internet. De-centralized control with a true free market is what we need. If that’s what you’re arguing against and you’re fighting on the side of the most hated companies in the United States, the only way to win is by spinning the free market as socialism, so that’s what Kerpen does.

Certain people with an agenda have found that when they don’t like something, an effective way to throw a big wall in front of it is to call it socialism.

Finding a socialist college professor, demonizing him, and then anointing him the leader of that movement in order to win your argument, however, is intellectually dishonest. Any 18-year-old Political Science 101 student can demolish that argument with little effort.

But the tactic frequently works, especially if you choose your audience carefully, so that’s why people like Phil Kerpen continue to use it.

And one last parting thought: In researching this, I found a number of web sites that attempt to identify and name socialists and Marxists. There’s really no need for that. There aren’t very many true socialists, let alone Marxists, left in this country–the movement fizzled out as a relevant political force in the 1940s, if not earlier. Socialists are more common in academia than anywhere else, and it’s not uncommon for college students will flirt with socialism or even Marxism as they search for solutions to the things that trouble them. Most of them mellow out after they graduate and start participating in society.

I cannot for the life of me find what net neutrality hurts. Given the passion with which Phil Kerpen attacks net neutrality and anyone who dares to defend it, he has either been horribly misled, or he’s hiding something.

I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s been misled, but that doesn’t legitimize his tactics. He needs tangibly demonstrate the benefits of a non-neutral Internet that is highly regulated by the incumbent corporations to protect their own interests. And so far neither he nor anyone else has done that. The Internet has been largely net-neutral for more than 20 years, and as such, has been a source of innovation and economic growth since the early 1990s, so the burden of proof is on him.

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