Recently, Silicon Valley players and many Washington, D.C.-based activist groups led a protest to “save net neutrality” from the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to undo regulations the agency adopted two years ago.
True supporters of an open internet should demand more than a slogan. What the internet needs to end regulatory uncertainty and threats of litigation is a bipartisan law from Congress that protects internet freedom by codifying widely accepted net-neutrality protections.
Put in place after President Barack Obama pressured regulators to scrap efforts to find agreement, the FCC’s 2015 order regulating broadband internet under a Great Depression-era statute (“Title II” of the Communications Act of 1934) had support from just one political party. This action failed to embrace a self-evident reality — administrative rules, especially those affecting all internet users, need to have a broad consensus of support to withstand future political changes.
Although President Obama tried to justify the use of unilateral administrative action as a remedy for supposed reluctance by Congress to work together, the FCC’s partisan proceeding actually advanced despite pleas from myself and other Republicans who wanted to work with the Democrats on a bipartisan law.
The draft proposal we released more than two and a half years ago as a starting point would have outlawed the online practices of blocking, throttling and paid prioritization of legal content over broadband cable and wireless connections. It put forth a 21st century framework to protect internet freedom by ensuring that corporate owners of broadband infrastructure couldn’t manipulate the internet experience and guaranteeing that the sometimes heavy hand of government wouldn’t disrupt the positive disruption that has allowed the internet to thrive for two decades.
Like many organizers of the recent protest, I vigorously support an open internet. But as a senator representing a rural state, I am concerned such protests often give short shrift to ensuring all Americans have access to high-speed internet.
Today, 34 million Americans, mostly living in rural America, lack access to high-speed broadband services at home. As broadband service providers (there are nearly 2,000 primarily small providers in the U.S.) weigh the profitability of making investments in high-cost areas, fear of future shifts in the political winds looms large. Stated bluntly, investments to connect more Americans in states like South Dakota may be slowed or not made at all if providers fear that regulators will pass new restrictions on their ability to recover costs and make fair profits from new infrastructure investments.
Left unchecked, some believe that the views of regulators toward the online ecosystem will continue to shift with the federal government’s political leadership. This, in turn, creates a lack of stability for those companies that invest in the internet’s metaphorical pipes and those that invest in the data flowing through them. This presents a problem for those who favor keeping the FCC’s 2015 regulatory approach and those who want to throw it out the window. As one technology reporter observed earlier this year about past and potential future shifts in FCC regulations, “We’re in danger of having a system that combines the worst features of a world with network neutrality and a world without it.”
The solution to this dilemma, passing bipartisan legislation, is within Congress’s reach. If Democrats and Republicans have the political support to work together, we can enact a framework that provides the net-neutrality protections wanted by so many internet users, reasonably limits the whims of partisan regulators, and grants the flexibility to protect consumers from future harm.
Let’s not settle for slogans. Let's demand a resolution that finds agreement and concludes this debate. Let’s embrace the idea that the internet is a symbiotic ecosystem. Many businesses and individuals contribute to the internet’s success, and ultimately they need each other to ensure that users continue to benefit from it. True supporters of a free and open internet should spend their energy driving leaders toward a lasting and bipartisan solution while rejecting efforts to politicize and further divide an emerging consensus about net-neutrality protections.