By Mike Montgomery
Net neutrality is a foundational principle in the digital age. But for too long its future has been uncertain due to changes in leadership and politics. That is why it’s important for Congress to do what only it can do through a bipartisan process: enshrine the principals of net neutrality into law.
Wednesday’s announcement by Chairman Ajit Pai that the FCC will open rulemaking proceedings to reverse the Title II regulations put in place by the last administration does not change the need for a law. In fact, it shows what a political football net neutrality has become.
While politicians seem disinclined to agree on anything these days, there are good reasons why they should work together on this. While net neutrality proponents were pushing for the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the internet under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, many of them instantly suffered from buyer’s remorse when the FCC did just that in 2015.They realized that subjecting the internet to utility-like regulations may not be the best way to encourage innovation around privacy, security and new features that could not only make our lives more efficient but delight us. Companies like Netflix backtracked on their support for Title II.
The problem with Title II is that although it does, in theory, ensure that all data is treated equally and that companies can’t carve out fast lanes, it also opens the door to the internet being frozen into a time capsule that discourages network modernization, the next wave of innovation and competition among providers. The digital world moves at the speed of light. To slow that growth to the speed of bureaucracy would have serious negative effects on the burgeoning tech industry which is creating jobs faster than almost any other industry out there.
Another problem is that while the previous administration was happy to enforce net neutrality through Title II, it’s now clear that the current administration would like to keep the tenets of net neutrality in place, but toss Title II into the regulatory dustbin. Chairman Pai has shown that he’s an advocate for the principals of net neutrality — he just doesn’t agree that the internet should be regulated like a utility.
So here we go again. Proponents of each side of the argument are gearing up for another bite of the regulatory apple as the FCC reopens the debate around net neutrality. Public interest groups are preparing to raise millions by shouting fire in a crowded theater and striking fear into the hearts of consumers. Their counterparts on the right are firing up their many D.C.-based lobbyists to argue for total deregulation.
I used to refer to net neutrality as a food fight. I was wrong. It’s a holy war dressed up as the plot to Groundhog Day. As everyone ramps up the rhetoric, perhaps it’s finally time to stop doing the same thing over and over and consider another path.
If net neutrality is as important as we all think it is, then perhaps we should do more to ensure its survival. We can’t do that by watching the pendulum swing back and forth between Title II and deregulation. We can’t do it through regulations that can be eviscerated every 4 to 8 years (or whenever there’s a regime change in Washington).
We need a law.
Once again, CALinnovates calls upon Congress to take the hint and get to work. By making net neutrality the law of the land, a political hot potato gets replaced by clarity and certainty, not just for a presidential term or two, but well into the future. And the new law must guarantee key protections for consumers and innovators that are at least as strong as those provided in the Open Internet Order.
By turning net neutrality principals into law, Congress can deliver on behalf of the American people and put this never-ending tragicomedy to rest once and for all.
Mike Montgomery is the executive director of CALinnovates, a coalition of tech companies based in California.
This piece was originally published in The Hill.