The recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to heed the calling of President Barack Obama to impose antiquated common carrier, utility regulations on the Internet comes with great controversy. These new rules come despite no evidence showing market failure or harm to consumers, and despite what Chairman Tom Wheeler says, they will inevitably result in rate regulation of all Internet services. Also looming large is market uncertainty caused by a myriad of legal challenges, the taxation on American consumers through an expansion of the Universal Service Fund to cover broadband, and the thwarting of needed legislative efforts to overhaul the Communications Act of 1934 in its entirety.
Fortunately the rules also present a unique opportunity for members of Congress, perhaps chiefly Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, to work with one another to forge a more stable policy solution that continues to treat the Internet as an “information service,” not the old Ma Bell telephone network. In fact, a reasonable solution — realistic legislation introduced by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, a South Dakota Republican — sits there for the taking.
Thune’s bill reflects the reasonable middle ground approach that, ironically, the FCC’s chairman espoused before overt pressure from the president to enact draconian utility regulations. The legislation, which retains the rightful provision of Internet services as an information service, but enacts into law the very consumer protections that Democrats desire — no blocking, slowing or prioritizing content by Internet providers — is a bold compromise.
Advancing this reasonable policy and restoring the Internet as an information service before the FCC rules take effect on June 12 is absolutely critical. Will Senator McCaskill hear the call? We should hope so.
A group of “tech innovators” recently argued that the decision to privatize the Internet and treat it as an information service may have been the single greatest policy decision of the past 20 years. “The communicating public has enjoyed the benefits of a thousand fold improvement from the 56Kbps dial-up modems that the 15 million early Internet adopters relied on in 1995,” the group wrote to Congress. The Internet today reaches roughly 90 percent of the country.
While easily dismissed at times, Internet companies have invested more than $120 billion to further Internet access and adoption. Had the Internet been subjected to the litany of common carriage regulations it will soon be, there is little denying that the widespread use of the Internet would be much lower and that many of our favorite Web companies may have never even been created. Its mother-may-I structure halted any sign of innovation over the phone networks and would have done the same to the Internet. It probably will now as we shift toward a European model.
This is despite, according to research from Christopher Yoo, the U.S. outperforming Europe in access and overall coverage. “Regression analysis indicates that the U.S. approach has proven more effective in promoting [next generation coverage] than the European approach,” Yoo says.
Put more simply, Europe and the globe at large trail the U.S. in innovation. Nearly all of the world’s favorite Internet brands — Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. — call the U.S. home. This is no accident. These companies have been free to innovate in an unfettered Internet market. Now they, too, will be ensnared by sweeping antiquated telephone regulations of the last century, imposed by the FCC.
The available option is clear and readily available to Democrats on Capitol Hill who so far have disregarded the significant concessions Republicans are making to avoid the regulatory straitjacket of the FCC regulations. It is a simple piece of legislation — four pages versus 400 from the FCC — built to withstand the future. By acting in a bipartisan way, Senator McCaskill and Congress can right the FCC’s wrongs.
To bring freedom of technology and telecommunications to the 21st century, America needs action — now. That action should come from our elected representatives, not from unelected bureaucrats.
Christopher D. Coursen founded the Status Group, a technology and telecommunications consulting firm. He formerly served as majority communications counsel for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. He also advised the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.