By Mike Montgomery
Like any reality show that hinges on ginning up new drama for its captivated viewers, the debate over net neutrality, now more than a decade old, is fueled by manufactured conflict.
Since 2005, here’s the scorecard: three attempts by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to implement net neutrality rules, two reversals, endless litigation and a whole lot of outrage by interest groups and think tanks on all sides of the issue that rely on perpetual conflict to fundraise.
That outrage has worked, inspiring more than 20 million net neutrality comments since 2014 — more than have been submitted about any issue in FCC history.
This endless loop is not doing most stakeholders any good; not the small businesses that net neutrality is designed to protect from being relegated to slow lanes, nor the consumers who want the new services and ever-increasing internet speeds that innovation and investment create.
Americans seem to understand this: According to a new survey, Americans overwhelmingly favor a permanent law over regulations that can be changed from administration to administration. Indeed, 74 percent of Americans said they would support net neutrality legislation that enabled them to use the internet free from government or corporate censorship, while creating rules that ensure a level playing field.
It’s time to end the slowest game of policy pingpong before it drags into another decade. It is high time for Congress to finally step up — after multiple decades of hibernation — and pass affirmative, bipartisan legislation that makes net neutrality the law of the land. That is something that CALinnovates has proposed for three years now; we are gratified that others are finally jumping on the bandwagon.
Unfortunately, many still balk. They would rather decry what the FCC is doing in reconsidering the Open Internet Order or rail against “government control.” In an ironic move, the “Day of Action” really highlighted the inaction we are stuck with — yet another round of public protests and bluster against the inevitable FCC reconsideration of the Open Internet Order instead of real action to demand that Congress enshrine net neutrality into law.
Let’s call that what it is: faux outrage. There is an opportunity — right now — to settle net neutrality once and for all with legislation that would ensure that whoever is in the White House and in charge of the FCC won’t rewrite the rules. Neither side is likely to get 100 percent of their demands, but there’s clear agreement over the core 95 percent that should be cemented into law.
Such legislation must guarantee clear rules that prohibit blocking and throttling and guarantee transparency. In short, there should be no discrimination whatsoever. Legislation should ensure that no “fast lanes” for preferred content are allowed to develop through paid prioritization, with few exceptions, such as free data. Free data (aka zero rating) and other offerings that don’t count against data caps must demonstrate how they provide consumer benefits and encourage, rather than stifle, competition.
Such legislation is likely to garner wide support, especially among younger voters. The recent survey revealed a surprising nuance about younger voters’ stance on internet governance. Contrary to previous understanding about millennials’ views on internet issues, the survey found these Americans are the most likely to think the internet is over-regulated. In fact, 18- to 29-year-olds were nearly twice as likely to favor congressional action over FCC oversight.
If Congress were to enact bipartisan legislation, the principles of an open internet would be the law — and the net neutrality reality show would be cancelled prior to season 13. Is there another option? Sure. Partisans could wait for the next Democratic president to appoint an FCC chair. At the earliest, that’s in 2021. Can the country go that long without net neutrality?
We can’t, and shouldn’t have to wait for inevitable swings in partisan control to settle this for the benefit of all sides. Congress must wake from its two-decade slumber regarding internet policy to take the decision away from the FCC and cement net neutrality once and for all.
As a strong supporter of the principles of net neutrality, CALinnovates believes Congress can muster such courage. Now it is time to see if interest groups representing all positions in this debate will set aside their faux outrage long enough to put their heads where their hearts are.
Mike Montgomery is the executive director of CALinnovates, a coalition of tech companies, founders, funders and nonprofits that aims to educate policymakers, elected officials and regulators on the virtues of the 21st-century digital economy and raise the issues of importance to the technology community at the local, state and federal levels of public policy.
This piece was originally published in The Hill.