(Un)Free Press Sticks it to the Essentials

The latest missive from the folks at Free Press has crossed the line:

When challenged, the wireless carriers actually compare their industry to another: soda.

This is from the Times editorial on July 22:

Phone companies point out that exclusivity agreements are commonplace in other industries. For example, they say, it is not often that one finds a restaurant serving Coke and Pepsi.

Sorry, but cell phones aren’t soda. Unlike carbonated sugar water, cell phone choice, network access and the mobile Web are increasingly essential components of a democratic society. We rely on them for access to the information we need to be engaged citizens in the 21st century.

Free Press doesn’t even bother to challenge the logic, because it’s absolutely true. Exclusivity deals are as anticompetitive as vending machines, which is to say, not at all. But no, apparently the state needs to take control of mobile phones because that market is more “essential.”

What isn’t essential? Can our democracy forgo cars or trains? Could this Great Society exist without food, water, or power? What about televisions, computers, or operating systems? Books or universities?

And what is the track record so far for government’s hand in industry? The Interstate Commerce Commission was founded in 1887 to ensure “fair” operation of the railroads, and it quickly became the very definition of regulatory capture. FDR created the Civil Aeronautics Board with the same intentions, yet its greatest success was finally managing to dismantle itself. The US Postal Service survives today as an anemic jobs program, because competing with it is illegal. How many failures does it take to lose faith?

It should have taken just one. We tried regulating phones before. We wanted to ensure universal service as far back as the 1920s. The FCC nationalized the industry during WWI and then gifted it to AT&T, in exchange for the company’s help in building a nationwide network. The network grew entirely as planned–just as the FCC wanted–and we created a monster that held back the telephone industry for decades.

Free Press claims that essential services can’t be trusted to the market. I can only ask, who on Earth do they trust?