The FCC’s bad idea

Over the last few months, millions of Americans have weighed in on the open Internet debate. The high level of engagement among businesses, entrepreneurs, federal, state and local regulators, and public interest and consumer groups reflects the Internet’s near-universal reach.

It also demonstrates the fundamental role the Internet plays in driving economic development and creating opportunities for future growth and prosperity in today’s economy.

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In a relatively short time, the Internet has become a central platform for job creation, education, job skills training, business development and healthcare. It has also enabled us to achieve efficiencies in agriculture, energy, transportation, manufacturing and many other sectors of our economy. Internet service providers have invested more than $1.2 trillion in broadband infrastructure over the past 15 years, extending the economic and social benefits of broadband to underserved and rural communities and creating millions of jobs, which have contributed billions of dollars to our economy.

However, these achievements are not by chance. They are a result of the light-touch regulatory framework that has long governed the operation and functionality of the Internet — an approach that has been critical to the resulting innovation and advancement we have reaped. Yet many advocating for the Federal Communications Commission to reclassify broadband as a public utility ignore or underestimate this fact, negligently dismissing the importance of this light-touch approach to the future success of the broadband marketplace and surrounding ecosystem.

They perpetuate claims that providers have maliciously blocked or slowed Internet traffic, manufacturing hysteria over a fictional problem. They also claim that reclassification is necessary to prevent broadband service providers from entering into “paid prioritization” agreements.

Putting aside the fact that prioritization has always been a beneficial part of the consumer experience on the Internet, Title II, which permits discrimination, wouldn’t solve their perceived problem. Should the FCC proceed with its proposal, the commission would be empowered to micromanage many things that have enabled the Internet to be open, flexible and adaptable.

Under the Clinton administration, the FCC presumably foresaw the potential of the Internet and understood the devastating effect that utility-style regulations would have on its growth and development. Democratic FCC Chairman Bill Kennard led a report to Congress in 1998 classifying broadband as an information service, placing it outside the crushing regulatory grasp of Title II rules that would burden the Internet with price controls and subject investment and innovation propositions to regulatory interference and bureaucratic red tape.

In three subsequent rulings, the FCC reached the same conclusion, reaffirming the decision to classify broadband as an information service and rejecting its treatment as a public utility. The Supreme Court also upheld the FCC’s classification in the National Cable & Telecommunications Association v. Brand X Internet Services case with a majority of six justices. 

Nothing since that time has fundamentally changed about the nature of the broadband marketplace to warrant such a radical and reckless change in the law. Title II of the Communications Act was designed for the monopoly telephone system of 1934 with origins in 19th-century shipping regulations — not the 21st-century technology landscape.

Earlier this year, I introduced H.R. 4752, legislation that would prohibit the FCC from reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service. My proposal would maintain the FCC’s long-standing precedent on broadband classification and uphold the very regulatory structure that has enabled the Internet to remain open, flexible, adaptable and free. Too much is at stake to entertain proposals suggesting a different course of action. Should the FCC move forward with its misguided proposal and impose additional Internet regulations, precious resources would be diverted from broadband deployment and network upgrades to regulatory compliance, likely delaying the availability of broadband and the innovative applications and services it brings with it. 

At a time when the Internet is a thriving job-creation engine, driving productivity and economic growth, it is reckless to suggest, let alone adopt, policies that will impede its success. Rather than squander the United States’ position as a leader in the 21st century global digital economy, we must dedicate our resources to promoting proposals that will keep the Internet open and free.

Latta has represented Ohio’s 5th Congressional District since 2007. He sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee.