Senate would be prudent to leave internet freedom alone

Senate would be prudent to leave internet freedom alone
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It sounds benign and looks good on the outside, but net neutrality is as deceiving inside as the Trojan horse. If proponents of net neutrality achieve their objective of passing a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution to overturn the 2017 Restoring Internet Freedom Order (RIFO), the result will not be a fair and open internet; it will be a restrictive, innovation-killing, government-run internet.

Americans could end up like the Chinese and the Russians, with limited access to information that only the government wants them to see. There will not be free and open access to information. Internet service providers will be subject to regulations that would force them to report every action they take and ask for permission prior to investing in any improvements they deem helpful to improve internet access for their customers. Instead of reducing costs by deploying new infrastructure and increasing accessibility to underserved and unserved communities, this restrictive regime would only serve to increase the price of internet access to customers.

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Although absolutely nothing has happened to the internet since the RIFO was adopted by the Federal Communications Commission on Dec. 14, 2017, net neutrality advocates continue so sound like the Ghostbusters, who in the 1984 movie cited many catastrophes that would allegedly befall the world: “Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling. … Forty years of darkness. Earthquakes, volcanoes … The dead rising from the grave! … Human Sacrifice, dogs and cats living together – mass hysteria.”

 

The sky has not fallen, and the internet has not failed. Yet, net neutrality proponents continue to claim the end of the online world as we know it is nigh.

Despite the voluminous evidence to the contrary, the doomsayers now have an ear in Congress, particularly in the Senate, where it appears they are close to convincing a majority of senators that the only way to “save the internet” is to overturn the RIFO by passing a CRA. Indeed, this is their preferred mechanism for ensuring a government-run internet in the future. Rather than taking the bait, Congress should achieve a permanent resolution by updating the two laws related to the entire telecommunications ecosystem, the Communications Act of 1934, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996. 

Following the enactment of the latter law, Congress and President Clinton agreed that the internet should be regulated with a light touch and not be subject to the same laws as telephone companies, because it is an information service, not a telephone service. That was the incredibly successful status quo until the FCC, under chairman Tom Wheeler and at President Obama’s request, adopted the Open Internet Order on Feb. 26, 2015. This aberration and abomination subjected ISPs — but no other actors in the internet ecosystem — to Title II of the 1934 act, which regulated the telephone industry following the breakup of the Bell monopoly. 

In the mid-1990’s, when consumers first began accessing the internet; the only option was a dial-up modem using a telephone connection. They were not using it to call or speak to someone; they were using it to access information through early ISPs like America Online, AT&T Worldnet, Bluelight, CompuServe, Delphi, EarthLink, Juno, Mindspring, Netzero, Prodigy, and RoadRunner. When logging onto an account, one typically would type in the password information, and then get a cup of coffee and come back to the computer hoping that the account would finally be open.

Today, the internet is accessible through the touch of a button on a variety of devices. Thanks to the light-touch regulatory regime that was in place from 1996 to February 2015 and restored in December 2017, companies building networks have been empowered to improve their services and offer faster speeds and increased capabilities to their customers, helping the U.S. lead the world in online digital platforms. It seems likely that high-speed access to broadband would not have been achieved as quickly, if at all, under the regulatory scheme of Title II, which the CRA seeks to re-impose. 

The Senate has passed 14 CRAs to overturn Obama-era regulations, including the broadband privacy rules that the FCC adopted just prior to the 2016 elections. If senators agree to the proposed CRA to overturn the RIFO, it would both contradict the privacy CRA and become the first time that the Senate agreed to bring back an Obama-era regulation. And if any senator who voted for the privacy CRA voted in favor of the RIFO CRA, it would be a complete betrayal of the principles for which he or she stood in the prior vote.

The Trojan horse of net neutrality should be rejected once again by the Senate. 

Deborah Collier serves as the director of technology and telecommunications policy for Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit group aimed at promoting limited government.