Conflict makes for good headlines. Sadly, on issues ranging from health care to North Korea, there is enough disagreement and discord to make it seem that America is doomed to gridlock. But a dig beneath the headlines suggests that some issues, such as how to secure an open internet while also promoting innovation, are actually ripe for agreement.
A few years back, finding common ground on this issue would have been hard to imagine. Indeed, under the tag of “net neutrality,” it still fires intense emotions. But rhetoric aside, majority thinking has evolved toward a smart and growing consensus. There is now wide support among internet-based business, internet users, and policymakers on both sides of the political aisle for an open and neutral internet in which consumers can readily access the websites they choose – without worrying about blocking or artificial barriers. Just about everybody now agrees that so long as internet users follow the law in their online activities they should be free to go where they want to go.
There is also a growing sense that the open internet principle is so important that Congress should write it into law. By spelling out a clear and permanent national policy, enacting a statute will permanently protect users’ rights, provide regulators with clear policy guidance and also encourage investment and innovation by creating certainty about core principles. Most internet participants and regulators have long accepted the concept of openness. But recent experience has shown that without clear legal guidance from Congress, the rules to implement openness can change sharply as new administrations come to Washington.
Without updated guidance from Congress, regulators have had little choice but to fit outdated laws to meet new circumstances with the result that courts have sent regulators back to the drawing board to try again and again and again. The fits and starts are beginning to hurt by cutting into investment in telecom networks and discouraging innovation because creators aren’t sure which of their new ideas will pass muster and which ones regulators might block.
Two years ago, the Federal Communications Commission shifted from a successful “light-touch” strategy that had prevailed since the Clinton administration to rigid regulatory oversight under “Title II” rules created more than 80 years ago to govern the old telephone monopoly. Since then, investment in networks has dropped by about $4 billion — a disturbing and counter-intuitive trend at a time when steady economic growth should mean more investment, not less. Now, the agency seems poised to change course again by tossing out the Title II approach. Increasingly, both advocates and critics of Title II are coming to agree that Congress should end the policy zig-zag.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) has said it well, arguing that Congress should settle the issue once and for all because “you can’t keep having this herky-jerky policy of the FCC doing one thing and the courts doing another thing and it goes back and forth. Just get the thing settled into law.”
Similarly, a coalition of diversity groups says, “A comprehensive legislative solution is the only means to put an end to the regulatory see-saw that destabilizes markets, inhibits innovation, and depresses job growth.”
Advocates of Title II rules such as Facebook and the Internet Association agree, saying they want to work with Congress to ensure enforceable rules to protect an open internet.
Resolving the issue once and for all with an Act of Congress also could free policymakers to give renewed attention to other significant internet and telecommunications issues that affect consumers directly in their daily activities. Ending the persistent digital divide that has limited internet opportunity for large segments of America’s minority communities as well as citizens who live in rural America, for example, should be a top policy priority. With the openness fight set aside, regulators also might have more time to address the problems that routinely trouble consumers such as unwanted robocalls and billing issues, which a recent analysis by Inside the FCC shows are the top consumer complaints.
The United States faces many difficult challenges as well as honest disagreement about how to meet them, but the fundamental principle of an open internet is one area where most agree. Congress should write that principle into law to create the type of certainty that enables the investment and innovation to keep our country moving forward in the digital age.
Ralph Everett is the senior industry and innovation fellow at The Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy.
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