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Net neutrality requires a bipartisan, legislative solution

Net neutrality requires a bipartisan, legislative solution
© Greg Nash

Senate Democrats invited reporters to a press conference last month underscoring their ongoing opposition to the Federal Communications Commission's new Restoring Internet Freedom Order. The lawmakers — focused on pushing to the Senate floor a Congressional Review Act (CRA) vote — took turns stepping up to the mic to offer their hyperbolic thoughts on the order, which lifts Obama-era rules that sought to regulate the Internet as if it were a public utility.

Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonDemings raises million after announcing Senate bid against Rubio Russia threatens to leave International Space Station program over US sanctions Nikki Fried, only statewide elected Democrat in Florida, launches challenge to DeSantis MORE (D-Fla.) declared that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai committed an “all-out assault on consumers,” while Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the order “[strangles] freedom of communication.” Sen. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthConcerns grow over China's Taiwan plans China conducts amphibious landing drill near Taiwan after senators' visit US, Taiwan to discuss trade, investments, Blinken says MORE (D-Ill.) added that the “un-American” decision will result in small businesses getting “crushed.”

More of the same has been uttered this week during a comically-misnamed “Net Neutrality Day of Action,” but before the caterwauling starts again, let’s take a deep breath.

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It’s clear that these bombastic remarks are merely political theater. The reality is that if policymakers really care about ensuring net neutrality in 2018, they should cease with peddling propaganda tactics and wasting taxpayers’ time — and instead work together on comprehensive, bipartisan legislation.

 

The good news on this front? There is widespread support in both parties and across the technology industry for such legislation. Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph Thune'The era of bipartisanship is over': Senate hits rough patch Bipartisan talks sow division among Democrats Senate passes long-delayed China bill MORE (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has reiterated that he’s “willing to work with any and all supporters of net neutrality” on a bill. Recognizing the need for a law, Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyClimate progressives launch first action against Biden amid growing frustration Senate Democrats urge Google to conduct racial equity audit Senate climate advocates start digging in on infrastructure goals MORE (D-Mass.) previously sponsored a net neutrality bill and should be eager to join his colleagues in rebooting the initiative.

So-called edge providers have also called for a legislative fix. Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergFacebook's Zuckerberg lets more employees work remotely Hillicon Valley: Advocacy groups target Facebook employees in push to keep Trump off platform | Senior Biden cyber nominees sail through Senate hearing | State Dept. urges Nigeria to reverse Twitter ban Advocacy groups target Facebook employees in push to keep Trump off platform MORE wrote that his company is “open to working with members of Congress and anyone else on laws to protect net neutrality.” The Internet Association, which represents firms such as Amazon, Google, Netflix, Twitter, and Reddit, issued a statement saying it “remains open to Congress enshrining strong, enforceable net neutrality protections into law.”

Besides moving our political discourse forward, a net neutrality bill would at last establish permanent rules addressing this issue. Until that happens, policy surrounding net neutrality will continue to flip back and forth as Republicans and Democrats take turns in the governing majority.

Predictable policy will strengthen consumer protections, but in the meantime the FCC made vast strides in this imperative with the recent Restoring Internet Freedom Order. The order increases transparency from service providers and directs the Federal Trade Commission to protect consumers from anticompetitive business practices. The FCC also returned internet regulation to the light-touch approach initiated by the Clinton administration and supported by both Republican and Democratic policymakers for over two decades — until partisanship ended that light-touch regulatory environment in 2015.

The Senate CRA would reinstall the heavy-handed regulatory rules that caused a significant drop in telecommunications investment.

Low investment levels harm consumers in the form of unrealized internet access, particularly in rural areas of the country. In so doing, that slows the technological innovations — in everything from first responder communications to traffic system management — that can deliver smarter, less costly government services for taxpayers.

The CRA push by opportunistic Democrats would both reinstate the archaic rules that strangled technological investment and innovation, and return internet regulation to the back-and-forth regime that will cause confusion and uncertainty in the market. The only way forward is with a legislative solution — not by outsourcing power that Congress has to an executive agency.

Our senators have the opportunity to find common ground and pass substantive legislation addressing net neutrality principles. Members expending time and effort on charades including the “Net Neutrality Day of Action” and the Senate CRA should instead shift their priorities to this productive and attainable goal.

Pete Sepp is president of National Taxpayers Union, a nonpartisan citizen group founded in 1969 to work for lower taxes, limited government, and economic freedom at all levels.