Net Neutrality: Silicon Valley’s Whiz Kids Are Stumped

David Karp of Tumblr (Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)
Mark Lennihan / Associated Press

The whiz kids of Silicon Valley are celebrating the GOP’s apparent collapse on Net Neutrality. The New York Times exults: “the little guys appear to have won.” It omits that the “little guys” are some of the richest people in America, and–by their own lights–the smartest. The odd thing is that the nerds who have an app for everything seem to be unable to explain what Net Neutrality actually is, and why we need it. Case in point: Tuesday’s epic failure by Tumblr CEO David Karp on CNBC.

Karp, who was brilliant enough to build a company that he sold to Yahoo for $1.1 billion, could not answer the most basic questions about Net Neutrality.

He could not explain why the government needs to regulate the Internet’s traffic to save it from the success that has enabled him, and others like him, to become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.

He could not explain why a company like AT&T, which has invested in the infrastructure to make the Internet much faster and more accessible, should be barred from charging prices that would allow it to recoup its investment from those willing to pay.

Amidst the incoherent verbal muddle in which he entangled himself, Karp managed to offer two somewhat intelligible arguments: one, that consumer demand for faster Internet speeds would make up somehow for the fact that established companies would no longer build the infrastructure to carry the traffic; two, that those who disagreed with him were lying.

When confronted with an inconvenient fact, such as the personal guarantee of AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson that the company would not make additional investments in infrastructure if Net Neutrality was implemented Karp’s defense was: “That’s not true. It’s just been disproven.”

As in, he’s seen a contrary blog post somewhere. Maybe it was Voxsplained. His response to a question about regulation? The “Bill of Rights.” A non-answer from the recesses of memory, a vaguely familiar totem.

The appeal of Net Neutrality is that it offers a kind of vicarious, sentimental socialism to the newly super-rich who have been educated, socially and/or formally, in the progressive milieu. It is the public policy incarnation of the Silicon Valley tagline, “making the world a better place,” which has now become a punchline on the HBO series of the same name. It is a sort of high-tech version of the Occupy movement, lost between anarchy and Stalinism, without the stench (sometimes).

That is the mindset of Silicon Valley as a whole. It celebrates “disruption,” but does not understand the value of all that it is attempting to disrupt.

Breaking up established patterns can create value for consumers and new opportunities for innovation, but at a certain point excessive disruption begins to erode the foundations of entrepreneurship–the basic institutions, principles and values upon which the high-tech economy implicitly depends, whether it admits that or not.

That dichotomy was perhaps best exemplified by the late Aaron Swartz, the young Internet pioneer who was ultimately betrayed by the Obama administration he and his millennial, tech-savvy cohort had brought to power.

Swartz helped prevent the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) from becoming law in 2012. He later recalled: “There was just something about watching those clueless members of Congress debate the bill, watching them insist they could regulate the Internet.”

And yet Swartz’s political organization, Demand Progress, is one of the main proponents of Net Neutrality, which would hand the federal government–the executive, not Congress–the power to regulate the Internet as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, a law older than Sen. John McCain.

Strip away the technological trappings, and what lies at the core of Silicon Valley’s progressivism is just old-school statism–much to the surprise of Silicon Valley itself.

Last year, a Reason-Rupe poll revealed that two-thirds of millennials believe that government is inefficient and wasteful–and yet the same proportion want more of it. It is a paradox with which they are rarely confronted–and when they are, as David Karp was on CNBC, they sit, stupefied and stunned.

Karp’s ineffectual response was a sophisticated version of the “underpants gnomes” theory of business, a blind faith in innovation without incentives, investment without real returns.

Silicon Valley is enamored of the power it created and unleashed to take over the Democratic Party after 2004, to nominate and re-elect Barack Obama, to pass Obamacare and to push gay marriage. It believes it is perfecting a kind of participatory democracy.

Yet its campaigns for Net Neutrality and for immigration reform reveal that it is actually “hacking” democracy, executing a kind of putsch under a pretense of populism.

The whiz kids believe they are entitled to rule. They may regret it.

This post has been updated.

Photo: file

Senior Editor-at-Large Joel B. Pollak edits Breitbart California and is the author of the forthcoming ebook, Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party, available for Amazon Kindle.

Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelpollak


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