FCC selections matter for keeping the Open Internet
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Elections have consequences, and the spoils go to the victor. As President-elect Trump’s transition team prepares to replace President Obama’s political appointees with their own people, many unknowns lie ahead. But unlike many of my colleagues in the technology sector, I am optimistic about the future.

Trump promised a new paradigm and to “drain the swamp” – a huge task with many obstacles along the way. As this occurs, I hope that Trump and his team stay true to his word and do not let the alligators rule when it comes to the Federal Communications Commission and the Open Internet.

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The Open Internet, or what some refer to as net neutrality, is a concept that prohibits network providers from restricting content or limiting services available to users. The goal of the Open Internet is to grant everyone equal access to the Internet. My companies have long been active in the effort to protect the Open Internet, and have been fighting for Internet privacy long before privacy was cool.

 

We have learned from long, painful experience that federal agency oversight of an industry does not always lead to the best outcomes. That being said, when a given market is not fully competitive some regulation is justified to protect the public interest and prevent abuses by those with undue market power.

But far too often the regulators themselves become “captured” by the very folks they are supposed to oversee. This situation is akin to “Stockholm Syndrome,” wherein the regulator is so constantly besieged by the regulated that over time they begin to adopt the same world view. Ultimately, the regulator comes to believe that their job is to protect the regulated from the public and insurgent competitors, rather than the other way around. This holds true for the FCC.

The Internet was possible because in the 1960s the FCC tried to encourage and facilitate competition by requiring open access to underlying bottleneck transmission facilities. It stayed out of the way so the free market could operate to supply information services (including Internet access, email and “the Web”). But in the late 1990s, the FCC decided to close off the network and deny unbundled access to new fiber-based broadband transmission. That’s when things started to go wrong.

We should support steps that help keep the Internet “open,” and we applaud rules that protect individual privacy. Democratic FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler made a pathway to protect the Open Internet, but it’s far from perfect. Let me be clear though, Wheeler did not create the problem - his Democratic and Republican predecessors did. He could only ameliorate them and to protect consumers and the open Internet in the face of constant opposition by the large and very powerful service providers.

The FCC rules would not have been necessary if the FCC had stuck with its original bipartisan policy of requiring those who control bottleneck transmission facilities to open up the network and allow access to the underlying infrastructure on just, reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms.

That policy is what allowed thousands of small start-up companies to jump in and provide fully competitive, unregulated Internet access to consumers. Those ISPs are now gone. They were wiped out in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the FCC decided to let the telephone and cable company big providers (AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Spectrum, et cetera) eliminate thriving independent ISP competitors by ending open access to local broadband networks, principally fiber.

My concern is that this presidential transition will blindly focus on simply undoing all of the previous administration’s policies, as every other administration has in recent history, without giving any thought to the consequences or what the affirmative new policy should be. The problem with this mindset is that sometimes the good ideas go on the policy chopping block along with the bad, and nothing replaces them even when something is needed.

This is why alarm bells ring every time I see a former AT&T or Verizon executive, lobbyist or consultant named for a potential role within the administration for communications or Internet policy, and especially the FCC. Alligators do not typically go where there is no swamp, or to one about to be drained. But I remain hopeful and trust the president-elect to honor his word as he works on new policies.

I will do what I can, and encourage others to join me, by asking Trump to keep in mind that Twitter is around despite, not because of the telephone and cable companies.If they had their way every tweet and retweet would incur a toll and take a minute to go through. Even Trump could not have afforded the cost of that platform during the election, if Twitter was here at all. 

Ron Yokubaitis and his wife, Carolyn, founded Golden Frog, a company dedicated to protecting Internet privacy; Data Foundry, a data center colocation provider of managed services; and Texas.net, one of the first 50 Internet service providers in the United States.


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