If you're confused by the "net neutrality" debate roiling Washington, you're in good company. The editors of Wired magazine realized that even their high-tech readers needed help understanding what passes for political debate on the topic. They published a graphic in June with the heading "What you think the Internet looks like" alongside "What the Internet really looks like." It debunked the key claim of net-neutrality lobbyists that allowing "fast lanes" would undermine the open Internet.
The Wired graphic shows that the Internet is already full of fast lanes. In the early days, websites simply connected to the Internet backbone, which consumers accessed through Internet service providers. But as Internet use grew, sites likeGoogleGOOGL +0.33% created their own fast lanes by sending data directly to ISPs such as phone and cable companies via what are called "peering" arrangements. Sites like NetflixNFLX +0.24% created another set of fast lanes using "content delivery networks" to place their computer servers inside local ISPs so that video and other bandwidth-hoggers can be delivered smoothly.
In other words, fast lanes won't kill the Internet. They've saved the Internet.
If it weren't for these fast lanes, the Web would have screeched to a halt when photos and video began to supplement text-based traffic. At peak times, Netflix alone now accounts for one-third of all Internet traffic. If it weren't using its own network to cache video locally around the world, other traffic on the Web would get hung up or delayed. Fast lanes keep everything else flowing smoothly, from email to security cameras to remote surgery.
"Net neutrality" has become a meaningless plaint of "Unfair!" Activist groups in Washington with benign names like Free Press and Public Knowledge want the Internet reclassified as a public utility, subject to the sort of regulations that micromanaged railroad monopolies in the late 19th century and the phone monopoly in the 20th.
That would spell the end of permissionless innovation on the Internet. Bureaucrats would have authority to dictate how networks operate, which technologies can be used, and what prices can be charged. Regulators would approve or disapprove innovation in business terms as well as in technology. If Netflix wanted to charge ISPs for the right to carry its video, regulators and not the market would decide. Regulators could limit the number of photos individuals can post to FacebookFB -2.31% or order the deletion of Uber apps on mobile phones in cities where taxi regulators oppose the service.
Net-neutrality lobbyists are to the left of President Obama's new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, who has opposed treating the Internet as a utility. Some of his colleagues have gone public to beg not to be given the power to undermine the Internet.
Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, gave a speech in Washington last month saying the campaign to treat the Internet as a utility "is being driven by a parade of horribles that is entirely hypothetical." He opposed "dramatic regulatory change solely for the purpose of assuaging fears that have not materialized." The other Republican commissioner, Michael O'Rielly, has pointed out that fast lanes are "necessary for network management."
Robert McDowell, who was an FCC commissioner for seven years, wrote in the Washington Post last month that net-neutrality activists have been warning for a decade of the imminent danger of an unregulated Internet. Fast lanes are just their latest boogeyman. "Nothing is broken that needs fixing," he wrote.
Broadband providers pledge in their terms of service with consumers that they will keep the Internet open. Antitrust and competition laws would apply if there were abuses.
Nor have net-neutrality lobbyists explained how reclassifying the Internet as a utility would stop any fast lanes, even if these were a problem instead of a salvation. The government regulates the postal system, bridges, tunnels and toll roads, all of which have fast lanes and slow lanes.
The FCC's Mr. Pai warned in his speech that endless debates over net neutrality are now a "distraction" from the larger issue. With demand for bandwidth growing dramatically, he argued, regulators "should prioritize policies that will encourage the private sector to expand and upgrade high-speed broadband networks." This includes ending local broadband duopolies of cable and phone companies, easing access for new broadband providers such as Google.
Net-neutrality advocates demanding to have the Internet regulated as a public utility should explain the source of their faith in big government. The rest of us understand the clear lesson of history: Granting bureaucrats control over the Internet would undermine the world's greatest engine of innovation.