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Robert D. Atkinson, Ph.D. Headshot

Shooting the Messenger

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In the last few years a troubling development has emerged in U.S. telecom and Internet policy. Network policy didn't used to be highly partisan; emblematic of this is the fact that the 1996 Telecommunications Act was passed along bipartisan lines. Increasingly, however, the dialogue over networking policy has become shrill, partisan and divorced from reality.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the net neutrality debate. To listen to the advocates of strong net neutrality regulation, the incumbent ISPs can't wait to block "objectionable" content, impose mandatory charges on all web sites to reach ISP customers, and manage their networks to favor their own video and voice services over services like Netflix and Skype.

The fact that there has only been one case of this sort of abusive behavior in the United States - rural network operator Madison River Telecommunications blocking Internet telephone service to protect its telephone network profits - which was immediately remedied by the FCC, does not seem to matter to advocates who'd rather not be confused by the facts. The fact that no ISP has proposed mandatory two-sided pricing (charges to web sites to enable ISP customers to access them) does not stop pro-regulatory research institutes from crafting detailed analytical reports calling for strong net neutrality regulations based on the fantasy that ISPs secretly wish to alienate their customers in order to descend into a death spiral toward bankruptcy. In fact, as ITIF has argued, if we want both wireline and wireless broadband networks to function effectively, particularly in an environment with more diverse kinds of applications than the Internet has seen in the past, ISPs will need to continue to engage in reasonable network management. Engineers and serious policy analysts know this, but that doesn't deter net neutrality advocates from calling for "dumb pipes" that have never existed in the Internet and never will.

Anyone daring to question the doctrinaire populist net neutrality party line is immediately pilloried as a lackey, sock puppet, shill, or an enemy of the Internet revolution. The latest attack comes from Public Knowledge's Harold Feld in a HuffPost blog skewering Philip Verveer, the U.S. Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy, for committing the thought crime of suggesting that net neutrality regulation "could be employed by regimes that don't agree with our perspectives about essentially avoiding regulation of the Internet and trying to be sure not to do anything to damage its dynamism and its organic development. It could be employed as a pretext or as an excuse for undertaking public policy activities that we would disagree with pretty profoundly."

Ambassador Verveer has to deal with nations that would love to regulate technology industries in order to reduce the competitive advantage of U.S. Internet firms such as Cisco and Juniper and the jobs they create (witness the recent attacks on Google by the Italian courts), as well as with nations that would love nothing more than to impose content restrictions on the Internet, so before the politburo attacks Ambassador Verveer, it might want to first open a dialogue with him to better understand the challenges he faces.

So I can save net neutrality advocates the time and trouble of dealing with this complicated issue in a sensible way, let's just get the ad hominem attacks out of the way: ITIF is a counter-revolutionary Astroturf organization, and I am a sock puppet and shill for the capitalist information technology and telecommunications companies. Branding me an enemy of the people and a candidate for thought reform is a lot easier than actually thinking and dealing with the issues, but it doesn't alter any of the facts, does it? If the U.S. opens the Pandora's Box of Internet regulation on the basis of protecting consumers from imaginary harms, we'll supply the regimes in Beijing, Caracas, and Tehran with an excuse to protect their own "values" from criticisms from the free and open Internet. They'll probably do this sort of thing anyway, but we don't need to make it easier for them.

Rob Atkinson is President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. ITIF is a 501c(3) non-profit think tank at the cutting edge of designing innovation policies and exploring how advances in information technology will create new economic opportunities to improve the quality of life. ITIF is funded by a variety of sources, including foundations, individuals, and technology-based companies, including some telecommunications companies.

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