The Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) motion to strike down former President Obama’s net neutrality regulations has not deterred several states from initiating their own legislation on the matter. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington have already passed net neutrality legislation, while governors in six other states have signed executive orders for their own versions.
In fact, attorneys general from 22 states and the District of Columbia have taken action to combat the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality. The suit filed to a US appeals court contained the claim that a "free and open internet is critical to our democracy." The state of California recently passed a bill that encompasses the stipulations from the Obama administration while also prohibiting zero-rated data plans. “California had to step in to ensure our residents have access to a free and open internet,” said California State Sen. Scott Wiener (D), who sponsored the legislation.
What Is a Right?
The fervent rhetoric and political haste surrounding this issue have obscured an incredibly vital factor which is the nucleus of this concern. The nucleus in question is whether anyone, in any capacity, is entitled to “free” internet at all. To arrive at a conclusion, there must be a sound concept of both “rights” and “entitlement.” Without this crucial framework, any declaration of what a person is due is subject to ambiguous and arbitrary tampering, thus losing legitimacy.
Murray Rothbard, in his 1982 book The Ethics of Liberty, provides a concise record of the learned and devoted scholars from a variety of disciplines and schools of thought who have wrestled with the concept of “rights” over the centuries. The most common explanations for the origins of rights have been divine installation, inborn reasoning and characteristics, and the state.
Validity of these assertions aside, in order for “rights” to have a consistent and ubiquitous meaning, they must be defined in a manner that is secular and universally applicable. It is with this consideration that I construct the meaning of “rights” as privileges inherent to individual existence. That is, rights are the benefits we receive from being able to control our own bodies.
For example, humans have a right to opinions since an opinion is comprised of thoughts and feelings generated by one's own mind. Expression and speech are also rights because they originate within the individual’s personal vessel (i.e., the body). Since these abilities are intrinsic to human existence and controlled solely by the individual, it is impossible for them to be directed in a telekinetic manner. What humans can do is control the circumstances surrounding an individual, forcing said individual to make a choice they wouldn’t have otherwise, but this does not qualify as controlling another's bodily functions. Therefore, the use of one’s personal vessel is strictly one’s own privilege and no one else's.
When extended into the realm of human contact, rights must beexpressed through voluntary exchange. Any exchange that is not the product of consent necessarily entails an entity seizing use of facilities outside the entity’s personal vessel, which they have no right to do (theft). If two individuals exchange goods that each has obtained in the absence of theft, then they are participating in an action that is purely the result of each participant using their personal vessel in a way that generates a mutually fit outcome.
A person who uses their body to steal would not be engaging in a rightful act. Although the thief would be controlling his own body, thus using the bodily functions he is privileged to control, he does not have a right to anyone else's belongings since they are not a function of the thief's own body. The thief perhaps could be able to spy, wander, and sneak since those actions involve the use of his own body, but when it comes to taking possession of entities outside himself, he has entered a realm where his rights are only extended by others using their rights.
Entitlement to the Internet?
This assessment leads to the concept of “entitlement.” Entitlement is broadly defined as benefits one has a right to. Given the framework of “rights,” one can only be entitled to those benefits that are inherent in one's own body (speech, opinion, expression, etc.) and benefits contractually agreed upon through voluntary exchange.
Regarding net neutrality—defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites”—no entity can claim entitlement to content provided via the Internet.
The Internet itself is a system of computer networks, the origins of which extend from the labors of individuals. Content provided on these networks likewise extends from individuals who put forth their own efforts in creating said content. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) essentially sell the service of being able to obtain the producers’ content. Nowhere throughout this process are individuals, content producers, or ISPs being deprived of privileges inherent in their own bodies. What is being discussed in the media is not a question of rights but simply disagreements on the terms of exchange between participants.
The question of fairness or agreeableness is completely irrelevant in conjunction with what individuals are due. So long as ISPs rightfully own their service, they are not obligated by any rightful standpoint to provide any form of treatment outside of their own desires. Nor are content providers or Internet users inherently deserving of any amenity from ISPs. In order for content providers and Internet users to claim Internet service benefits as a right, they would have to prove that, somehow, the amenities provided by the ISPs are services that ISPs commandeered from the personal faculties of others. Unless this case can be made, there can be no true entitlement to the Internet or the implications of net neutrality.
Dean, D. (2018). Net Neutrality Legislation in States.Washington: National Conference of State Legislatures.
Granados, N. (2018, August 30). California Lawmakers Pass Nation’s Toughest Net Neutrality Law. Forbes.
Kang, C. (2018, August 31). California Lawmakers Pass Nation’s Toughest Net Neutrality Law. The New York Times.
Rothbard, M. (1982). The Ethics of Liberty. Auburn: Mises Institute.
Tillet, E. (2018, August 21). 22 states and D.C. urge court to vacate and reverse FCC rollback of net neutrality. CBS News.
Ulloa, J. (2018, August 30). California legislators advance bill to set strongest net neutrality protections in U.S. The Los Angeles Times.