THE BLOG

Net Neutrality's Brain Drain and Distraction

07/22/2014 04:31 pm ET | Updated Sep 21, 2014
Debbi Smirnoff via Getty Images

As a national community, we debate and think often about the impact of the Internet on our lives. The issues that emerge in those conversations are tied to real needs - for affordable connectivity, access to laptops and mobile tech for learning and business, as examples. Latino tech leaders talk about the stories of Dreamers organizing on social media via mobile devices, and how they kept up with el Mundial at work, by checking Facebook from their phones.

Net neutrality doesn't even come up in conversation. Yet the outcome of the seemingly never ending debate over net neutrality or the "Open Internet" does have an important effect: it distracts us from the real issues facing the Internet and those depending on it.

Latinos and their leaders understand the real issues facing the Internet. They want an ever faster Internet with even more video, more bandwidth, and next-generation technology. From a policy perspective, the community wants more school connectivity and a national focus on digital skills so that all students learn 21st century creation and coding skills alongside math and history. We know this is key to better prepare young people to participate in the digital revolution that has helped create multi-billion dollar businesses like Uber, Whatsapp and Airbnb - all of which represent the future of the economy, yet lack significant Latino participation.

Our full and focused attention on bridging those gaps, stimulating and spreading the digital economy to everyone, and realizing universal broadband adoption must be our community focus. The Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC), and 42 national minority serving organizations so rightly highlight this point in their filed comments in the FCC net neutrality proceeding.

The open Internet is critical to maintaining a flourishing broadband innovation environment, as broadband technology and digital skills are the tools for small business, communication and virtually all key activities. A recent survey by Mobile Future finds that 83 percent of Latino small business owners surveyed experience productivity gains and 62 percent credited business growth from integrating mobile tools into their business.

Maintaining an open Internet basically means having an Internet ecosystem where providers of all kinds of legal content have open and non-discriminatory access to the nation's privately owned broadband networks. Clearly, it is vital to ensure the continued benefits of broadband innovation and participation online. It should be equally clear, though, that we already have an open Internet. And current laws give the FCC adequate power to deal with violators of net neutrality should that become necessary, without turning to an outdated regulatory scheme that would treat the Internet like the telephone. This is what activists are proposing when they support reclassification of the Internet under Title II of the Telecom Act. No community would benefit from this dramatic change in treatment of the Internet.

We can maintain a balanced approach that supports future investment and innovation in the broadband infrastructure, while also reestablishing robust protections for the open Internet. A June essay by Georgetown business professor and telecom policy expert John W. Mayo warns that a decade of debate over economic regulation of the Internet is creating the false impression that America is limited to two stark and unattractive choices. One, a laissez faire free-for-all market where government is little more than a spectator. And two, a market regulated like a telephone utility under Title II of the Communications Act, an environment where speed and innovation would become an endangered species.

As Mayo points out, Section 706 of the same Communications Act provides for "a congruence between legal authority and sound economic policymaking." Section 706 focuses the FCC's authority on preserving and expanding output in the telecom industry while giving the public maximum access to advanced telecom services. It gives the FCC flexible authority to deal with any future anti-competitive behavior, because that behavior would discourage growth.

With the Section 706 arrow in the FCC's quiver, there is no need to choose between what Mayo calls "the pitfalls of either a completely unregulated Internet or last century's public utility regulation model."

But still, the fight over net neutrality continues to draw undue attention and drain our national energy.

Last month, I participated in this Google hangout on net neutrality hosted by Elianne Ramos and featuring FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and Arturo Vargas from presente.org, during which I argued again that the battle over net neutrality is diverting precious energy from the real issues - the pressing needs - facing Latinos in the 21st century digital economy. While a small group of "consumer advocates" threaten that the Internet would be destroyed unless we enact anything but the strictest, most outdated regulations, the real issues falter from the spotlight. Regulations created eight decades ago for the old telephone system look nothing like the policies that have governed the Internet since its beginning and resulted in hundreds of billions of dollars in private investment leading to technologies we take for granted - names like FiOS and XFINITY, Google Fiber and 4G LTE. Those groups would like to see the modern Internet treated like your abuela's old rotary telephone from a legal standpoint.

There is a clear disconnect.

Of course, Latinos value the open Internet, and want the web to remain as open a platform as it has always been. But net neutrality is a debate hijacked by fear-driven hypotheticals, and not much more. Since the 2010 net neutrality rules were adopted, the investment in the United States' communications infrastructure continues to increase, while Title II like regulations in the European Union continue to hinder investment. The plan put forth by FCC Chairman Wheeler would seek to accomplish what the 2010 rules did while reestablishing rules of the road that guarantee access to all legal content without degradation (or slowing), and put in place rules that guarantee transparency for the ISPs. It's the kind of middle-ground plan that protects an open Internet without unnecessarily imposing strict regulatory oversight over the broadband ecosystem. Extreme, public utility-style regulation would reverse progress on Internet expansion and adoption nationwide and would fail to make the Internet faster, more affordable and more accessible.

Perhaps most importantly, the Chairman's plan, and the ideas supported by MMTC and a national community of leaders is one that would put this debate behind us, so that we can focus on the real issues of today, and the policies that will deliver the Internet of tomorrow.

The FCC's Open Internet docket is open for your replies through the fall. It still craves input from all communities, calling for openness, innovation, and investment. It takes all three of these things, plus an active, inclusive entrepreneurial culture to deliver the Internet of tomorrow. You can email a reply comment about what you want for the Internet to the FCC at openinternet@fcc.gov.

Jason Llorenz, JD is a scholar at Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, where he teaches courses in technology policy and social media. His research focuses on universal digital inclusion in the digital economy. Twitter: @llorenzesq