By Jonathan Spalter
May 9, 2018 at 5:00 am ET
It is said that “for every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Nowhere is this more true than in an effort now underway in the United States Senate — known inside the Beltway by the ever-accessible moniker of “the net neutrality CRA.” Using a provision under the Congressional Review Act statute, Democrats in the U.S. Senate are forcing a vote to abruptly reinstate a short-sighted, two-year experiment that revived public utility regulations written in the 1930s and imposed them on consumers’ 21st century broadband service.
The inconvenient truth? All sides in this debate share the deeply held belief that an open internet is central to our civil society, and all sides want clear, permanent rules of the road to ensure, now and forever, that our internet will remain open. So, what’s the issue with this particular vote? If you are unsure how you feel about the CRA, then here are some things you should know:
1. The CRA Leaves the Biggest Online Players Off the Hook
The CRA would strip enforcement powers over broadband companies from the Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s top consumer watchdog, which oversees the rest of the internet. This would revive an untenable imbalance in U.S. internet policy — having different rules for broadband providers than those governing the most powerful online players, the so-called FAANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google). In fact, The Tarrance Group recently found among those who say they are familiar with net neutrality, 60 percent believe the rules apply to all companies. The hypocrisy of such a reversion is particularly extreme with Big Tech facing serious questions and near daily headlines about its handling of consumer data. All it takes is one click on the “supporters” page of any pro-CRA website to see that what binds its corporate proponents together — they are exempt from the rules they seek to impose on their online rivals.
2. The CRA Applies Prohibition-Era Regulations to Your Modern Internet
CRA proponents claim they are merely seeking to reinstate Obama-era regulation of consumer broadband services. What they don’t say is that these rules were originally written in 1934 to govern a rotary phone monopoly. This is why the major online players today aren’t included. They didn’t exist during the Great Depression. These outdated and lopsided rules also are the reason private investment in U.S. broadband networks, now in direct competition with one another, declined by billions of dollars under this misguided approach.
3. The CRA Would Widen the Gap Between Digital Haves and Have-Nots
Proponents have said the CRA will defend “small business owners, entrepreneurs, middle-class families and every-day consumers.” But reinstating discriminatory, backward-looking regulations will undercut precisely these constituents who deserve both a continued, open internet and leading-edge broadband networks. This is particularly the case in rural America. As rural communities adopt and use broadband, incomes rise and unemployment falls. It doesn’t take an economist to grasp that singling out the top investors and builders in U.S. digital infrastructure for regulations written for a world of outhouses rather than smart houses undermines the cause of universal broadband. Reverting back to a Title II regime for the internet would further strain resources allocated to extending fiber further out into rural American communities.
4. The CRA Would Undercut the Competitive Edge of Our Digital Economy
With the exception of two years backsliding under this archaic regime, U.S. online leadership has flourished under a bipartisan policy framework that allowed American innovation to grow and transform at mind-boggling speed. Under this constructive approach, broadband providers invested more than $1.6 trillion in building U.S. information infrastructure. If the CRA is successful in segregating and penalizing these companies and their investments, U.S. policy will actively throttle down one of the most powerful engines of our nation’s global economic competitiveness while doing little to ensure the goal we all share: the continued vitality and openness of our internet.
5. CRA Opponents Support Net Neutrality—and Believe There’s a Better Way to Secure It.
Broadband providers support net neutrality and an open internet not just in word, but in deed. Far more important, over two-plus decades of actual behavior, they have been clear and consistent in not blocking or throttling content. Now, its high time consumers have this same reassurance whether dealing with Facebook, or Google, AT&T or Comcast, or any other company they interact with online in our ever-changing internet ecosystem. In fact, a clear majority of the voting public favors a legislative solution that puts these basic internet protections in law, covering all companies, rather than just passing the CRA.
In the real world, a lot of things “ruin the internet” — trolls, low battery life, that high school classmate-turned-conspiracy theorist. The absence of grossly outdated regulations from the books isn’t one of them. The CRA has been a massive political undertaking, pressuring lawmakers to support a largely symbolic bill that will not pass the U.S. House or gain the president’s signature. America’s digital consumers deserve far better than a hurried and counterproductive policy process. A vote against the CRA is a vote for doing the harder work of enacting modern legislation that delivers consistent safeguards across the online world. It’s time for Congress to come together and craft forward-looking rules of the road to end this debate once and for all.
Jonathan Spalter is the president and CEO of USTelecom.
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