The FCC Helped Make the Internet Great: Now, It’s Walking Away

[Note: This item comes from reader Randall Head. DLH]

The FCC Helped Make the Internet Great: Now, It’s Walking Away
By Kevin Werbach
Mar 3 2017
http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/fcc-helped-make-internet-great-now-walking-away/

In this opinion piece, Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics Kevin Werbach looks at how the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will be impacted by the Trump administration — and what that means for internet regulation. Werbach served as co-lead of the FCC review for the Obama-Biden Transition Project, and an outside advisor on technology and innovation policy to the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. This article is based on an essay, “Requiem for an Agency,” which he published on Medium.com.

The mantra that regulation stifles innovation is so ingrained these days that we ignore examples which don’t fit the script. That includes the biggest one: the growth and development of the internet. The Federal Communications Commission played an important role over the past 20 years, under Democrats and Republicans alike, in making the digital economy what it is today. Now, under a new president and chairman, it’s making an abrupt U-turn. The Trump FCC may become at best insignificant, and at worst, a tool for mischief and dirty tricks that will weaken the foundations of our democracy.

The FCC wasn’t the source of the internet’s entrepreneurial ideas, technical innovations and massive investments, of course. All that took place predominantly in the private sector. Yet without the FCC, the internet ecosystem today would be different, and in most ways worse: less vibrant, less advanced, less competitive, less open and less reflective of American leadership and values. Along the way, this tiny agency — a tenth the size of the EPA — became a highly visible and important player in critical public policy debates.

Had the FCC not put in place rules ensuring network access for new devices and applications, and opened the unlicensed wireless capacity for WiFi, the internet would never have taken off so robustly in the U.S. In the late 1990s, had it accepted the arguments of industry groups who wanted to impose per-minute charges on internet access, ban internet telephony and subjected small software companies to legacy regulations and fees, the internet as we know it could have been stopped in its tracks. Had the FCC agreed to hold evidentiary hearings to back up Congress’s 1996 decision to restrict “indecent” speech online, the courts may not have been so willing to overturn it.

The FCC has been equally important in the internet’s second act, fueled by broadband and wireless. Despite a late start relative to other countries, the FCC’s National Broadband Plan set forth a detailed and powerful vision. The FCC engaged in the hard work of eliminating economic and technical barriers to broadband deployment and adoption. Most prominently, it wrestled for over a decade with how to ensure the internet remained an open platform for innovation of all sorts. A court decision in June 2016 seemed to finally establish network neutrality as the law of the land, and the FCC as the “cop on the beat” to address discriminatory practices of broadband providers.

The New FCC

Five months later, everything changed.

President Trump’s FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, is smart, savvy and knowledgeable about the agency and Congress. He talks a great deal about his commitment to rural broadband access. Like virtually all Republicans, however, he wants to scale back the network neutrality rules. The FCC’s first actions on the issue came under two Bush-era chairmen, but most Republicans have always been skeptical of the need for formal broadband non-discrimination rules. Ironically, that now puts them out of step with the industry. Though still opposing classification as a regulated common carrier and some of the FCC’s specific requirements, virtually every major broadband operator is on record endorsing what would have been considered strong net neutrality rules in 2004 or even 2008. They’ve lived with net neutrality requirements for the better part of four years now, and the sky hasn’t fallen.

Pai and his compatriots, however, believe that today’s rules need to go. They say they’re returning to the internet policies of the Clinton administration, when regulatory humility held sway. They suggest that in walking away from network neutrality, privacy, security, consumer protection and broadband adoption programs, they’re following a similarly enlightened “light touch” path. They’re wrong.

Regulatory humility in 1997 would have meant letting telephone companies impose usage-based charges on internet access; keeping voice over the internet under the requirements for traditional phone service; letting the International Telecommunication Union take over global internet governance; and standing by as influential countries adopted internet content restrictions, and registration requirements for access providers as well as other burdensome requirements. It took guts and confidence for the FCC to stand up against all those interests on behalf of a few million geeks, because it believed in the internet’s potential.

Similarly, Chairman Pai’s swift action in ending the FCC’s investigation into potentially discriminatory “zero rating” practices, disqualifying providers in the Lifeline low-income broadband program, withdrawing reports on successful efforts to promote internet services in schools, and freezing pending security and privacy requirements for broadband providers shows anything but humility. Pai is signaling he’ll do everything he can to change the longstanding course of FCC internet policy.

[snip]

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