Op-Ed: Net Neutrality: Don't Stifle Growth With Regulation
This month witnessed two events that could prove pivotal to our digital future. The first and most obvious was the release of the iPad. The second was the federal appeals court's correct ruling that the Federal Communications Commission lacks the authority to regulate how Internet service providers manage their networks and deliver online content without express permission from Congress.
Sen. John McCain and I have legislation denying that congressional authority and thus prohibiting the FCC's naked power grab disguised by the warm and fuzzy term " 'Net neutrality."
The current policy, best described as "hands off," has bipartisan origins and a proven track record. Since the Clinton administration established the policy in the 1990s, the Internet has experienced unprecedented growth. Ninety-five percent of Americans now have access to broadband, access that has changed the way we consume information and communicate with each other. Within days of the iPad's introduction, the court upheld the rules of the road that proliferated the information necessitating such devices. Looking at the track record, it is hard to argue that government regulation would have somehow made the Internet more open, more fair or more innovative.
By shooting down the FCC's initial attempt to regulate broadband, the court has set regulation back but not ended it. Rep. Ed Markey, a champion of 'Net neutrality, has already declared that the ruling "must not be the final word." He is correct. A flourishing industry that creates thousands of next-generation jobs and reinvests $60 billion a year into building networks doesn't benefit from over-regulation of its networks any more than it does from the current uncertainty.
The broadband industry has a finite opportunity before Congress issues that final word. Unless ISPs create a robust, self-policing structure to assure the public that the Internet is an open marketplace where property rights, both material and intellectual, can be enforced, they invite the kind of regulation I know will stifle future growth.
" 'Net neutrality" advocates maintain that only the federal government is capable of imposing freedom on the marketplace. This is problematic for government and industry alike. The federal government is an inefficient regulator that would have to stifle innovation merely to keep pace with it. Federal bureaucrats have neither the ambition nor imagination to fairly manage such an innovative industry. Allowing the FCC to regulate broadband content would be like putting 19th-century railroad conductors in a 21st-century air traffic control tower.
Additionally, under proposed regulation, the government would be picking winners and losers by deciding which information travels first, second, third or not at all down the pipes. The government cannot do that without assigning value to specific content, which is fraught with constitutional implications. What broadband company would want to expand its network in that environment?
It is telling that many critics describe my position on this issue as advocating the "repeal" of 'Net neutrality. Their very criticism implies a satisfaction with the status quo since the Internet is an unregulated and neutral free marketplace -- as though my position would somehow roll back existing federal regulations to the detriment of free innovation online.
In reality, the very freedoms we enjoy there exist because the 'Net is a regulation-free zone. If we are to maintain the freedom of innovation, we must also main the freedom from regulation.