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How We Got to the FCC Debate Over Broadband

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Amidst the U.S. debate over regulating the Internet, it’s useful to consider the impact of the era in which the Internet came of age.

It is critically important to the Internet’s evolution that it became widespread and commercial during the 1990s. Netscape, Amazon.com, Yahoo!, Google, Wikipedia, and the Drudge Report changed and created industries during an era of free trade, free markets and deregulation.  Many others companies soared and then failed during the dot-com boom and bust. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos warned that it was an era like the “motor” era of a century earlier – when every new company had the word “motor” in it (Ford Motor, General Motors, etc.) – leaving only consumers to decide which few firms would survive.

But if the Internet had become mainstream after the security crackdowns after September 11, 2001, or during the re-regulation era following the 2007–08 financial crisis, it might have developed very differently.

Edward Snowden revealed a wide range of U.S. government programs designed to know all things digital. The National Security Agency was driven by its eponymous mission, determined that efforts to prevent another 9-11 were more important than privacy, and more important than open political debate about the question. In this same post-9/11 era, the rise of cybercrime and cyberattacks by known and unknown foreign sources increased the government’s role in the defense of military and commercial data and digital infrastructure.

After decades of regulations originating in the Great Depression, the 1980s and 1990s was an era of deregulation – in transportation, banking, telecommunications, international trade, and more.  But deregulation was one of the prime suspects blamed for the 2007-2008 financial crisis, and re-regulation emerged in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act.  This came just four months after President Obama signed into law an overhaul of the U.S. health care system, with significant new federal and state regulations for an industry that is nearly one-fifth of the U.S. economy.

On Feb. 26, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to reclassify broadband Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Verizon and Comcast as a public utility firms, like water and electricity providers. This reclassification makes them subject to much more federal regulation than they were as telecommunications firms.

Debate over this reclassification – and the net neutrality and other rules the FCC can now impose – are seated in the pendulum swing from deregulation to re-regulation. Advocates argue that reclassification and net neutrality rules will ensure open access for all Internet traffic, preventing ISPs and content providers from arranging “fast lanes” for some content. Opponents like FCC commissioner Ajit Pai argue instead that it is “a solution that won’t work for a problem that doesn’t exist,” and worry that investment and innovation will be stifled.  At the FCC vote, Pai called it a move to “replace [Internet] freedom with government control,” including price controls. Fellow commissioner Mignon Clyburn denied that in her statement moments earlier, and tweeted that the new rules foster “innovation, competition and diversity of voice and viewpoint.”

Beyond domestic policy debate, there may also be international implications. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler was opposed to the net neutrality rules until last November, when President Obama came out strongly in favor classifying broadband ISPs as public utilities.  Such plain executive intervention on the work of an officially “independent” agency may make it harder for the U.S. to urge other countries’ leaders not to interfere in their own ways.  Moreover, one former U.S. ambassador to the UN’s International Telecommunication Union spoke of fears of increased potential for Russia and China to move Internet control to the UN. The current Department of Commerce assistant secretary for communications and information rebutted this, citing the experience of Canada and the EU, and the commitment of the U.S.

Advocates and opponents agree on at least one issue: the “general conduct rule.”  Each fears a vague, non-transparent, and case-by-case application of a rule that could be used on issues of “competition, innovation, and free expression.”  That the FCC would not publish the new set of regulations before its February 26 vote, and that the FCC chair refused to testify before Congress, added to transparency concerns.

FCC rules must balance the goals of improved consumer experience and the public interest with an environment conducive to continued investment and innovation, while protecting Internet users’ fundamental First Amendment rights.  Publishing the new rules, and the chairman submitting to Congressional inquiry, will be the next steps in the public’s understanding of the new Internet.

“It’s about the next 20 years. Twenties and thirties, it was the role of government. Fifties and sixties, it was civil rights. The next two decades, it’s gonna be privacy. I’m talking about the Internet. I’m talking about cellphones. I’m talking about health records…. In a country born on a will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?”   

Sam Seaborn, The West Wing, S1: E9

 

 

Author

Jim Quirk
Jim Quirk

Jim Quirk teaches American and comparatiive politics at American University in Washington, D.C. He has taught at Loyola University Maryland, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Economics in Varna, Bulgaria. His favorite projects have included work with online learning, Mexico, the Balkans, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, OSCE, and IEEE. He tweets from @webQuirks.

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