May 21, 2006 · Lessig
So the recent struggles about network neutrality have led me to recognize something I hadn’t quite seen before. And that something in turn makes more puzzling the debates that have been raised around network neutrality.
The something to recognize is that in a fundamental sense, fair use (FU) and network neutrality (NN) are the same thing. They are both state enforced limits on the property rights of others. In both cases, the limits are slight — the vast range of uses granted a copyright holder are only slightly restricted by FU; the vast range of uses allowed a network owner are only slightly restricted by NN. And in both cases, the line defining the limits is uncertain. But in both cases, those who support each say that the limits imposed on the property right are necessary for some important social end (admittedly, different in each case), and that the costs of enforcing those limits are outweighed by the benefits of protecting that social end.
So from this perspective, it is easy to understand those who reject FU and NN (who are they?). And it is easy to understand those who embrace FU and NN. What gets difficult is understanding those who embrace one while rejecting the other — at least when that rejection is articulated in terms of “government regulation.”
For there is a consistency problem for those who embrace FU while arguing against “government regulation to support NN.” For FU and NN are both “government regulations” — each government defined limits on government granted property rights. In both cases, a government official (a court, or the FCC) is telling a property owner “this use of your property is opposed by the state.” And while there are important differences in the way FU and NN get administered, if anything, FU is more vague, more complex, more expensive, and more uncertain than the regulations being called for under NN.
So too are other arguments advanced against NN also available FU. NN opponents say the market will take care of the problem — that people won’t use networks that don’t give them the freedom they want. But the same could be said about copyright — if Madonna’s too restrictive, you could try Lyle Lovett. Some say there’s not a showing of market power with NN sufficient to justify state intervention. But on that standard, could there ever be a justification for FU? Who could possibly have enough culture as to have that amount of market power over culture? And finally, NN opponents say NN would sap the incentives from network owners, and they won’t build fast networks. But again, the same argument is made against FU — that giving up perfect control destroys the incentives of copyright holders. In both cases, the arguments are the same — on the one side, the call for perfect control over a property right; on the other, the demand for some limit in the exercise of a property right.
There’s also a consistency problem of course for those who embrace NN and criticize FU (me, for example). For the reasons I’m critical of FU are exactly the reasons people are fearful of NN. That recognition has helped me understand the nature of the concern about NN. But again, having lived the legal battles over fair use, and watched the regulatory battles over NN(‘s equivalent), I don’t see how anyone can be categorical in embracing FU while rejecting NN.
No doubt, some of those who embrace FU while rejecting NN (or the other way round) do so because the value said to be protected by each is not, in their view, sufficiently strong. That difference wouldn’t raise questions about consistency. It would simply reflect differences in values.
But then let’s hear that debate. Let’s hear people who say competition in applications and content isn’t important. Or that it doesn’t raise issues of free speech. Or whatever other reasons might be advanced to argue that government shouldn’t intervene here. Such arguments would at least be progress in a debate that seems to me so far just stuck in a confusion.