Congress, not John Oliver's 'flash mobs,' must determine FCC policy
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On Sunday night, HBO’s John Oliver once again raised the hackles of armchair activists, directing their digital ire toward FCC Chairmain Ajit Pai and his giant Reese’s mug over the FCC’s intention to walk back the short-lived Obama-era Title II regulation of internet service providers.

While those seeking to regulate consumer broadband service like a utility claimed a noble intent — to nip hypothetical favoritism of web traffic in the bud — it was hardly a pro-consumer move. After all, when was the last time you thought, “I wish my internet company behaved more like the gas company.”

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The fact of the matter is, Americans have always enjoyed a free and open Internet, and everyone — regulators, activists and yes, even ISPs — have always supported this 21st-century vehicle for free speech. 

 

Yet despite this fact, Oliver viewers armed with a (clever and crass) link to file complex FCC comments flooded the agency’s website. It should surprise no one that thousands of Americans would seek to express their support for net neutrality. I think it would likely come as a surprise to many commenters that they were being mobilized to argue to keep in place a nearly century-old regulatory regime that was abruptly shoehorned onto a complex and innovative 21st century industry.

Among the collateral damage of this dramatic rollback of nearly two decades of bipartisan U.S. innovation policy: Investment in ever stronger, faster and more capable broadband networks saw the first dip last year in private-sector broadband investment outside of a recession. Unlike other essential national infrastructure, U.S. broadband networks are built on private investment — more than $1.1 trillion and counting over the past 15 years. American’s simply cannot afford to slow these essential investments at a time when U.S. competitiveness demands they speed ahead.

Comments in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking are designed to elicit substantive policy recommendations. Thankfully, we are not yet governed by online flash polls. We all need a real national and public debate about how to secure our internet freedoms, not a few dozen Twitter likes for that time you helped crash a government website.

There is also an alarming irony in the fact that the internet, which has made mobilizing and voicing support at the click of a mouse instantaneous, may have also dulled its effectiveness.

In a recent interview with Slate, UNC social scientist and New York Times contributor Zeynep Tufekci worries that “networked” protests — much like what we see John Oliver induce — may be losing their bite with regulators and elected officials. The flurry of notes to the FCC, which included thousands of comments using fake names and bots posing as "Jesus Christ," "Michael Jackson," "Homer Simpson" and "Melania Trump” — is a compelling case in point.

The FCC’s rulemaking process is an important step toward shaping a modern net neutrality framework that doesn’t shackle innovation to a pole erected in the era of black and white films. But ultimately the best place for that debate to be resolved on a permanent basis is through our elected representatives in Congress. Based on the original coding of our democracy by its founders, they alone have the power to codify this core American value into law, so it is above the reach of the ebb and flow of political tides.

We live in an era of instant gratification, one in which consumers can personally tweet at the CEO of Starbucks that this morning’s foamy whip fell short of their pillowy expectations. One can “angry emoji” a Facebook post on the plight of Syrian refugees or unleash a torrent of copycat comments on arcane, 1920s era regulations at the behest of a comedian who openly urged folks in internet-land to “fly my pretties.”

Gratifying as these actions might be, it remains to be seen if it’s the most effective way to address complex policy matters with deep and lasting implications for our online freedoms, our economy and American innovation.

Jonathan Spalter is president and CEO of USTelecom, the nation's broadband association, which brings members of the telecom industry together to reduce barriers to investment and build a network infrastructure that encourages and supports broadband connectivity for all Americans.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.