Net neutrality started out at the Federal Communications Commission as a set of reasonable and bipartisan, pro-consumer Internet freedom principles.
In 2005, the FCC adopted a policy statement that ensured consumers could competitively access and use the legal content, apps, and devices of their choice, subject to reasonable network management.
Of late there has been precious little reason behind net neutrality policy, which is precisely why it is at such risk with the new Trump Administration and Republican-controlled Congress and FCC.
Republican Congressional leaders have long offered to negotiate a reasonable compromise with Democrats to define and resolve the net neutrality issue once and for all in law. They have signaled they remain open to a reasonable negotiated solution going forward.
How did a reasonable issue become so unreasonable over the last decade?
The story is telling.
Since law Professor Tim Wu made up the term net neutrality thirteen years ago in a white paper, its definition has remained fluid, confusing, and amorphous.
Over the last decade, net neutrality has morphed from a “broadband non-discrimination principle,” to “four Internet freedoms,” to “subsidizing creativity through network design,” to “the First Amendment of the Internet,” to “all bits are created equal,” to “no fast lanes,” to an “Open Internet.”
In 2014, Silicon Valley’s Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, called for a Reddit contest to “rebrand net neutrality to more accurately reflect our goal…the principle that all Internet traffic is created equal and should be treated as such;” because “net neutrality is an ambiguous term.”
The contest’s top three vote getters were: “Freedom from Internet restrictions,” “Freedom to connect,” and my favorite, “The Old McDonald Act: Equal Internet for everyone involved online (EIEIO).”
In 2009, law Professor Wu reimagined net neutrality to be much more than just a non-discrimination principle of Internet freedom, but also as a new regulatory system of setting prices at zero to economically subsidize edge innovation, in a white paper clearly entitled: “Subsidizing Creativity through Network Design: Zero-Pricing and Net Neutrality.”
This sweeping expansion of “net neutrality” was unreasonable because it moved the net neutrality goalposts from protecting consumers’ Internet freedoms to requiring that consumers economically subsidize the bandwidth costs of edge providers (like Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.) via de facto ISP price regulation that mandates they permanently are entitled to a bandwidth price of zero.
Eventual efforts to de facto legislate a new FCC net neutrality purpose without Congress were unreasonable because they denied Congress’ constitutional role of setting national policy and making laws.
Net neutrality grew even more unreasonable in expecting the FCC to reimagine its own legal authority sans Congress.
Thus, it reversed FCC policy that Section 706 was deregulatory and not direct authority. It also reversed multiple FCC precedents to reclassify broadband as telecommunications. It also had to reimagine a slew of facts, like claiming that the public switched telephone network and the Internet were the same.
Yet even more unreasonable is that the FCC had to reimagine that the 21st century modern policy “solution” to the unproven net neutrality “problem” could be found buried in 1934 telephone utility law and in an 1880’s common carrier regulation approach that the U.S. abandoned for planes, trains, trucks and buses and every other industry 36 years ago!
Most unreasonable of all were the tactical shenanigans proponents engaged in to get the FCC to implement Title II net neutrality.
To secure a ban on paid prioritization, proponents publicly railed against the horrors of edge providers having to pay for “fast lanes” when for six years the same people harangued the FCC that America’s Internet was not fast enough!
Proponents orchestrated a net neutrality TV rant by comedian John Oliver that called the FCC Chairman a dingo and called for viewers to flood the FCC with comments, which ironically shut down the FCC’s comment system.
Proponents also staged physical protests at the personal residence of the FCC Chairman and blocked exit from his driveway.
In sum, net neutrality started out as a bipartisan set of reasonable Internet freedom principles that consumers could competitively access and use the legal content, apps, and devices of their choice.
Since then, it has transmogrified from protecting consumers’ freedoms to forcing consumers to subsidize winner-take-all, net-elites like Google, Facebook and Amazon.
Meanwhile, the definition, purpose, and process of net neutrality have only gotten more unreasonable.
If net neutrality is a reasonable public policy, how is it unreasonable to expect its purpose, justification, and process to be reasonable as well?
Let reason rule.
Scott Cleland served as deputy U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy in the George H. W. Bush administration. He is president of Precursor LLC, an internetization consultancy for Fortune 500 companies, and chairman of NetCompetition, a pro-competition e-forum supported by broadband interests.
The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.