I like the Internet.
Cat Vids ← It brings us cat videos.
And baby photos. And memes.
It also brings education to the masses, health care to the hard to reach, and drives California’s economic engine.
The Internet does all these things (and more!) because it is an open platform. The principles of “Net Neutrality” (NN) and the open Internet are bedrock beliefs for innovative companies in California and around the country who are delivering the innovations and applications that power our lives.
More than a decade after NN was defined, it’s back on the front burner with everyone from talk show satirists to dog walkers discussing the importance of keeping the Internet open. The issues around NN are not new. The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has been struggling to create a legal framework to preserve and protect these core principles of openness for a long time, and I applaud FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler’s recent efforts to craft a sensible solution.
I’m convinced that a common sense solution exists, while at the same time hopeful that we’ll make sure there’s water in the pool before we dive in headfirst. I say that because I’m a little concerned about the desire by some to impose 1930s style telephone regulations on the Internet.
These old rules, also known as Title II, if you’re wondering, refer to a section of the Telecommunications Act that Congress first passed in 1934 to regulate telephone service. Not surprisingly, things are dramatically different now than they were 80 years ago, so when you take regulations drafted in the era of the rotary phone and apply them to the era of the smartphone, one has to wonder if this is a square-peg, round-hole solution.
Applying these old telephone regulations would essentially treat the Internet like a utility such as water or electricity. But when is the last time you saw innovation in your water pipe? “
If the Internet had been regulated like water or gas, I highly doubt we would have seen the advent of things like Google Fiber or connected cars,” said Jack Crawford, general partner at Velocity Venture Capital.
Eighty years ago, do you know what went through your water pipe? Water. And I bet that is what will go through it in 80 years. But do you want to guess what will flow through our broadband networks in 80 years? Do you want to guess the bandwidth requirements, the necessary speeds, or the possible services that future networks will need to support? I asked Crawford to answer the same question in the event that broadband is treated as a utility. His response:
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but in 80 years I think regulated broadband would look a lot like it does today. Let’s not veer down that path.”
Over the last three years, I have had the pleasure to work with the FCC, the CPUC, and officials at every level of government to ensure that California’s startups have a voice in the regulatory process. We may not always agree, but these governmental decision makers are working hard to create and enforce rules that will protect consumers, incentivize investment, and grow our economy. It’s the trifecta we all want.
It’s a poorly kept secret, but government moves slower than startups. And the FCC is no different. In order to make a decision on an Internet Service, it’s a 30 day comment period followed by a 30 day reply comment period — and that’s before any ruling by the Commission can even take place. Not exactly the speed of innovation. According to Avetta’s Lloyd Marino, a process such as this would have a chilling effect on innovation.
“In this business, we’re iterating on the fly, A/B testing different features and changing pricing models frequently. I don’t have the time to wait patiently for the conclusion of a regulatory process that I frankly don’t understand and can’t afford.”
As with any heavy regulatory hammer, Title II will be felt by nearly every part of the Internet ecosystem because it will regulate Internet services.That potentially means any company in the business of transporting information from one corner of the Internet to another could be regulated under these rules. That could include the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Twitter, even Snapchat — heavy-hitters who rely on the free flow of data to meet the needs of their customers.
For startups especially, extreme regulation could easily become Armageddon. Since under the rule the FCC will have the same regulatory oversight over Internet services as it does basic telephone service. That means it will approve, or not approve, any changes in Internet service, pricing, terms, conditions, and infrastructure. “Without the freedom for people to innovate without government oversight — what’s known as “permissionless innovation” — it’s doubtful the Internet would be where it is today,” said Yo Yoshida, Founder & CEO of Appallicious, a San Francisco-based civic startup operating in the open government space.
Furthermore, this might also require the payment of regulatory fees. Any company deemed to be providing a “telecommunication service” would theoretically have to contribute to the Universal Service Fund (“USF”). Who picks up this 17% tab? Probably us — consumers. Adding lines of fees and taxes to our Internet bills isn’t on my Christmas list.
In answer to these very real concerns, some supporters of reclassification state the FCC could forebear (grant exceptions) on certain parts of Title II. This, they say, would keep innovation moving. But what this perspective underestimates is the uncertainty this will inject into the sector, the onslaught of litigation such an approach would create, and the institutionalization of distinct classes of the Internet — where some companies can innovate freely and others are left to seek permission every step of the way.
In a statement by Chairman Wheeler following a recent hearing, he said, “There is ONE Internet. Not a fast internet, not a slow internet; ONE Internet.” I could not agree more with that statement. In fact, back in 2012 I wrote an op-ed about the dangers of two Internets. The United Nations was engaged in a treaty process that had the potential to create two Internets through a misguided regulatory process favored by countries such as China, Iran and Russia, and I posited that we must vigilantly fight to preserve one open Internet for all across the world.
I feel the same way nearly 18 months later and echo the words of Chairman Wheeler. We need to protect the open Internet. Saying the Internet is of great benefit and utility is like saying water is wet. It’s a universal truth.
I am delighted to see a robust conversation developing around how to best preserve what makes the Internet great. I just hope we don’t leap into a regulatory framework without really understanding what it means. We can all agree that keeping the Internet open is vital and I’m confident we’ll arrive at a practical solution in time, but we need a modern regulatory approach for modern times — not the porting of a one-size-fits all old-school solution to modern-day challenges.
Mike Montgomery is executive director of CALinnovates, a coalition advocating on behalf of California’s tech community.
This article was originally published on Medium