Saving Net Neutrality Requires Bipartisanship
On July 12, some internet activists led a “day of action” urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to preserve net neutrality and ensure that American consumers can enjoy a free and open internet. Their effort to generate support for net neutrality is well intentioned, but their target is misguided. To ensure open internet principles are permanently enacted, Congress is our best hope.
Net neutrality is vitally important, but the FCC’s woefully outdated public-utility approach to this issue is falling short. If we want to preserve net neutrality for the future, Congress must enact bipartisan legislation making an open internet the law of the land.
Two years ago, the FCC decided to reclassify the internet as a public utility using an arcane regulatory framework known as Title II, which was devised in 1930s for some of the earliest rotary telephones of that bygone era. FCC leaders thought they needed Title II to provide legal support for open internet regulation, even though better solutions were available. Since then, investment in America’s internet infrastructure has been scaled back, while net neutrality, itself, is no more certain or protected for the long-term than it was prior to FCC’s actions.
America’s internet economy has enjoyed so much success because of considerable private capital investment in broadband infrastructure over the past 20 years. These investments expanded internet connectivity to Americans from all walks of life — especially those in rural or remote parts of the country. This is no accident. Internet service providers spent nearly $80 billion in 2015 alone to expand their infrastructure, including $24 billion in rural communities.
But the adverse effects of Title II-utility regulations have been evident during the past two years as investment in broadband infrastructure fell by more than $4 billion. And the worst is yet to come. Experts predict tens of billions in lost investment if something isn’t done about Title II. When the government is using an outdated regulatory regime to govern a dynamic and innovative industry, it becomes incredibly more difficult and there is less incentive to invest in and improve the infrastructure that has been so necessary to its success.
It’s worth remembering that the internet flourished for decades under leaders of both parties before being shackled with utility regulations. We should return to that pro-innovation, pro-consumer, pro-jobs mindset.
Public interest groups, internet companies, and service providers all agree: we need to preserve an open internet. Even in these deeply conflicted times, this is an issue that unites us more than it divides us. So there is a real opportunity for bipartisan reform. Rather than shouting from the fringes and vilifying the very idea of compromise, everyone who cares about keeping the internet open should work together to achieve it in a lasting way.
Rather than protesting, those who care about net neutrality should take part in the process FCC Chairman Ajit Pai initiated by continuing to share their viewpoints in a serious and respectful manner by submitting comments to the FCC docket. More importantly, they should urge Congress to bring real closure to the issue by passing a law to cement net neutrality in place for good. Without legislation, open internet policies will continue to shift from one administration to the next, subject to the prerogatives of whoever happens to lead the FCC. That’s not good for consumers or the internet ecosystem.
The principles of net neutrality have bipartisan support in Congress. Senate Commerce Committee chairman John Thune (R-SD), for instance, has pushed for compromise legislation to come out of the Commerce Committee to protect net neutrality principles. Similarly, ranking member Bill Nelson (D-FL) has said that “only Congress can provide lasting safeguards” for a free and open internet.
Congress should build on this momentum.
Advocates of an open internet should work with Congress to enact the open internet principles we all agree on. This is the only way to secure an open internet for the future, and to prevent the policy upheavals that have dogged this issue for so many years.
Harold Ford Jr. is a former U.S. Representative from Tennessee and Honorary Chairman of Broadband for America.