Search And the Social Good

Tony Judt died this week. I hadn't even heard of him. A friend forwarded me the first chapter of his book, "Ill Fares the Land." Judt's essay is more thoughtful and more reasoned than Michael Moore's whiny movie "Capitalism: A Love Story," but the essential question is the same: In all of our worship of free markets, unfettered profit-seeking and individualistic success, how can we make sure we still attend to the social good?  

And why should we attend to the social good in the first place? The answer is simple: because there are many necessities of life that free markets and individualistic profit-seeking don't spontaneously give rise to. Competition doesn't work, say, in firefighting or police work. We need public infrastructure: roads, power grids, waterways, education. These services can and do benefit everyone -- but we don't always know in advance who will be on the receiving end of the benefit, and those who are aren't always in a position to pay.



According to Judt, we are failing to ask the most fundamental questions: "We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world?"

These are the questions against which I hope the FCC and our governing bodies consider the issue of net neutrality.

You don't need to overly romanticize the Internet to see the good that has come from it. Freely flowing information has brought increased accountability, including transparency of elections in corrupt countries. It has allowed for greater innovation, greater competition, greater access to education.

Those who argue that ISPs must not be allowed to differentiate data speeds do so because they believe it is fair, just, and right. If companies can pay for faster access, they will, and the big companies will pay more because they have more money, and the newfound ability David has suddenly acquired to fight Goliath on semi-even terms will have vanished.

Google and Verizon's joint legislative framework proposal appears, at first glance, to tick all the right social good boxes. Wireline broadband should be open to all legal content, applications, services and devices. There should be enforceable transparency rules for both wireline and wireless services. There should be an enforceable prohibition against discriminatory practices -- including paid prioritization.

But then they go on to propose additional, differentiated online services, like health care monitoring, the smart grid, advanced educational services, or new entertainment and gaming options.

Health care monitoring is a social good, as are the smart grid and advanced educational services. But new entertainment and gaming options? Not so much.

So does that mean the proposal is a nefarious attempt to secure a private high-speed pipe for videos of cute cats on YouTube? Perhaps, but not necessarily. As Max Ehrmann wrote in his timeless "Desiderata," "Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism."

The benefit of a differentiated service for new entertainment and gaming options is not the service itself but the increased innovation engendered by the service. An individual patent doesn't protect the public good; the patent system as a whole encourages people to invent by ensuring they can be rewarded for their hard work. (We can discuss the flaws of the patent system in another column.)

This is the backdrop against which we might have a thoughtful discussion about net neutrality. And it is a discussion worthy of our attention. After all, with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it's still a beautiful Internet.

I look forward to your thoughts on this issue, here or via @kcolbin.

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