As a hardworking Montanan, you’ve probably never heard of the internet, a connected system of computers that nerds use to masturbate. Over the last couple of decades, however, this network has become essential to America’s two remaining industries: complex mathematical calculations necessary to support imaginary systems of currency, and homemade videos necessary to masturbate. To these 21st-century replacements for manufacturing and agriculture, the internet has become what the railroads were to the Gilded Age.
In keeping with its mania for re-enacting that era, the Trump administration did away with regulations requiring net neutrality in December. Because internet service is dominated by a handful of providers and customers in most markets have only one option for high-speed service, net neutrality rules required service providers to treat all parts of the internet the same. ISPs couldn’t charge companies like Netflix more money in exchange for faster connections to their customers, and they couldn’t block those customers’ access to particular sites and services.
The idea was to prevent oligopoly companies like Verizon from leveraging their market share, and it was immensely popular. A December poll conducted by the University of Maryland found that 83 percent of respondents disapproved of the FCC’s plan to lift net neutrality regulations, but the commission did it anyway.
Last week, Gov. Steve Bullock announced his own plan to enforce a miniature version of net neutrality in Montana by awarding state contracts only to ISPs that abide by the old rules. There are more than 100 broadband internet providers in the state, but only one offers average download speeds above 6 Mbps: Charter Spectrum. If they want to do business with the state of Montana, they will need to observe net neutrality.
To the untutored observer, this plan might seem like a neat way to check the power of our monopoly cable provider. It neatly sidesteps questions of regulatory authority by matching the state’s outsized demand against Charter’s control over supply. It’s a market-based solution — albeit a Keynesian one — to a federal regulatory issue. Yet it found a prominent critic in the vice chair of Montana’s Public Service Commission, Travis Kavulla.
“The principle that the best economy results from doing nothing is a weird perspective for a man whose job is to regulate public services.”
Kavulla criticized Bullock’s decision on Twitter and in an interview with the Great Falls Tribune, describing the plan as “worrisome” and arguing that no law gives the governor or any other state official — including members of the PSC — the authority to enforce net neutrality in that way.
It was a surprising response from a public official whose job is to regulate utility companies. One might expect Kavulla to support regulation, or at least believe in the state’s authority to enact it. But this is not the first time Kavulla has proven agnostic about the kind of service his own commission is supposed to provide.
In July, he published an editorial in the National Review arguing that net neutrality regulations were misdirected, because web companies like Google and Facebook already commit the kinds of abuses net neutrality is supposed to prevent. “The practical reality is that the dominant tech firms on the network’s ‘edge’ loom as large in their control over customers as do the providers of the physical architecture through which consumers use the Internet,” he wrote. The editorial goes on to argue that net neutrality does not help competitors challenge the dominance of existing ISPs, and even if it did, it would apply to “a concern that the free market has not been shown incapable of addressing.”
These two arguments seem incompatible. Kavulla’s claim that Google and Facebook are the real problem is a counterexample to his argument that free markets address our concerns. If net neutrality regulations are unnecessary, how come the unregulated part of the industry — web companies — is dominated by a few large firms that exercise inordinate control over their customers?
This line of reasoning seems to have less to do with specific conditions in the internet sector than with Kavulla’s general confidence in the free market. The principle that the best economy results from doing nothing is an article of faith among many conservatives, but it’s a weird perspective for a man whose job is to regulate public services.
If I insisted that reading and arithmetic are wastes of time that distract children from important garment work, it would be just my opinion, until I ran for school board. Then it would be weird. It is similarly weird that the vice chair of the state commission tasked with regulating large companies doesn’t believe large companies should be regulated in this case — not because of the dynamics of this particular market, but because regulation is futile and the state lacks the authority to try.
I like my impassioned arguments for the free market to come from the private sector. Kavulla and his fellow commissioners are supposed to be Montanans’ bulwark against big business. The history of this state has shown that large firms will abuse their power if the government doesn’t stop them. It is dispiriting to hear a man charged with protecting consumers repeatedly argue against his own job.
Dan Brooks is on Twitter at @DangerBrooks.