On Tuesday, Northwestern Law hosted the second Newt and Jo Minow Debate, “Preserve Net Neutrality: All Data is Created Equal,” to a packed Thorne Auditorium. After a lively and sometimes heated ninety minutes, the team arguing against the motion won out, swaying eight percent of the audience to their side.
“The information superhighway to hell is paved with good intentions,” began Michael Katz, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the former chief economist for the Federal Communications Commission, as he launched the case against the motion. Both he and his debate partner, Nick Gillespie, highlighted the risks of giving government more power over free speech and the negative consequences of regulating internet providers, like reducing incentives to serve rural areas and low-income communities. Gillespie is the editor-at-large of Reason, the libertarian magazine of “Free Minds and Free Markets.”
Tom Wheeler, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under the Obama administration and a current fellow at the Brookings Institution and Harvard Kennedy School, who argued for the motion, emphasized the importance of “non-discriminatory equal access.” He and his debate partner, open-web advocate and Mozilla Corporation chairwoman Mitchell Baker, argued that net neutrality is necessary to prevent internet carriers from controlling what the public can access online. Besides limiting consumer choice, an absence of net neutrality regulations could stifle innovation and create unfair competition, they said. “Without net neutrality, companies also have no motivation to protect your privacy,” argued Wheeler.
At its core, net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers should treat all data on the internet equally and refrain from favoring, blocking, or discriminating against particular websites or apps. With the end of net neutrality laws scheduled to take effect on April 23, the event offered a timely examination of the possible implications of the repeal.
The debate touched on common carrier regulations, landmark discrimination cases, and the question of free speech. In her closing statement, Mitchell Baker’s own experience in Mozilla illustrated the importance of an open internet. “Mozilla and Firefox would not be here without net neutrality,” she said. “We were able to create Mozilla because of the open internet.” Gillespie used the opportunity to remind people of the risks of government interference. “We have a very good functioning internet and it’s getting better all the time,” he said. “If you think government is going to guarantee better quality, better service and free speech, I’m moving to Canada.”
This year’s debate was the second in the Minow Debate Series, which engages outside experts, law school faculty and students on timely legal topics. In 2015, the debaters argued the motion “U.S. Prosecutors Have Too Much Power.” The series, which is free and open to the public, is produced in partnership with Intelligence Squared Debates, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to “restoring civility, reasoned analysis, and constructive public discourse.”
John Donvan, author and correspondent for ABC News, hosted the debate, which consisted of 7-minute opening arguments, an audience Q&A session, and 2-minute closing arguments. The audience voted for or against the motion before the debate and again after closing statements. The winner was determined not by which side had the highest percentage of votes but by which side changed the most minds. While 60 percent of the audience supported net neutrality both before and after the debate, Gillespie and Katz increased their side’s support from 23 percent before the debate to 31 percent afterwards.
Nevertheless, it was the spirit of civilized, public discourse that reigned over the course of the night. “We all came here to compete,” said Donvan. “I’m honored that it was done with respect.”
The Newton and Jo Minow Debate Series was established as part of a generous gift from friends and colleagues of Newton N. Minow (JD ’50) to honor his numerous contributions to public and civic life. Minow is the originator of the televised U.S. presidential debates, which inspired the idea to honor his legacy with a permanent debate program at Northwestern Law.