Net Neutrality, Corn Flakes, and Kool Aid

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By Robert Delaney

sugar,

salt,

malt flavoring, and

some kind of processed grain.

These are the first four ingredients for many of the breakfast cereals that we’ve been led to believe are an ideal way to start the day. The ingredients are then “fortified” with vitamins in an industrial dehydration process that allows the product to sit on a shelf for a year or more. The worst of them – laden with chocolate, marshmallows, and other bits of chemically dyed candy – can give any child a head start on the path to obesity and diabetes, categories in which the U.S. distinguishes itself. (Malt flavoring, by the way, is just another form of sugar.)

The breakfast cereal assumption remained strong for the better part of a century because food producers, grocery distribution chains and marketing firms left little choice, or at least did a great job in creating that impression. Fortunately, many of us now know that these products aren’t as healthy as a wide range of alternatives – fruit, nuts, plain yogurt, eggs – that are just as easy to prepare. This is why sales of breakfast cereals have started to slide.

“There’s a sea change going on,” Larry Johnson, head of the food and beverage practice at U.S. consultancy Stanton Associates, was quoted by The Globe and Mail’s Eric Atkins as saying about consumer attitudes towards breakfast cereal.

This is also why I have hope for net neutrality. The reasoning is simple: online content falls just behind food and shelter in the ranking of stuff we need to live, and we don’t want money to regulate the flow of this particular stuff. One of the benefits of the fragmented social mediascape that we now both view and create is that consumer choice is dictated more from the ground up as opposed to the top down approach that had for so long shaped our assumptions and habits about food choice.

Net neutrality means that Internet service providers can’t vary the speed of online content delivery in accordance with the amount of money content providers pay them. To be sure, the issue isn’t black and white. There are some circumstances under which an ISP should have the right to control what comes through its pipes.  Industry, policymakers, and the general public should debate what to do about applications that commandeer huge chunks of bandwidth. But a regulatory regime that allows controls based solely on efforts to hobble competition would effectively turn ISPs into robber barons and don’t square with the principles of free trade. The FCC is mulling moves that will keep net neutrality intact until the issue is cleared up through legislation.

The history of business is littered with deals struck between government and industry that have limited consumer choice, often with negative consequences for quality of life or the environment. Absent such collusion, we might have had reliable electric cars on the road many decades ago. But the general public might just be smart enough now to balk at any suggestion that ISPs should have free reign to decide what content comes through the pipes first. That would be sort of like turning on the water tap and getting Kool Aid first.

(For anyone concerned about Comcast’s proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable, the Wall Street Journal explains how the move might bolster net neutrality.)

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