Chris Berg and John Roskam wrote Magna Carta: The Tax Revolt that Gave us Liberty in part to explain the Magna Carta’s significance and why it still matters. Obviously the ABC are yet to receive their copy. Yesterday it nominated ‘net neutrality’ as one of the eight ways the Magna Carta still affects life in 2015:
Much as the original charter limited the power of the king, a charter for the internet age would put limits on the power of governments and businesses to control access to the internet via censorship, surveillance and excessive costs.
As I wrote in the latest edition of the IPA Review net neutrality advocates fear a ‘fast lane-slow lane’ internet. In this scenario Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offer their wealthy clients – such as major media companies – the opportunity to pay for priority service meaning their websites receive quicker download speeds than everyone else. At the extreme, companies could even pay ISPs to block the websites of their rivals all together.
Net neutrality proponents believe consumers will eschew smaller websites for those that have quicker download speeds betraying the net’s egalitarian spirit and putting it in the thrall of big corporations.
This is like saying major supermarkets shouldn’t be able to undercut the local butcher. Or that airlines shouldn’t sell first class tickets.
In reality, unscrupulous corporations undertaking this behaviour will be sorted out by consumer choice (most people would take a pretty dim view to ISPs dictating what sites they can view) and, to a lesser extent, a vibrant and dynamic internet-focused civil society monitoring the situation and alerting consumers if and when it occurs.
The irony of the call for an internet Magna Carta is that in encouraging governments to unduly interfere in the business affairs of the citizens, net neutrality supporters resemble King John more than the barons.
(N.B. The ABC is right in saying we need a Magna Carta to stop governments from censoring the internet. But we’ve already got one. It’s called the Magna Carta.)