The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) mid-May meeting has generated divisive rhetoric from the right and many progressives. Yet, as the public comment period spans over the coming months, and as individuals and groups weigh in on FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's compromised proposal for new Open Internet regulations, it is important to step back and gain some clarity on what truly matters in this debate. Specifically, that the guidelines proposed by Chairman Wheeler strike the proper balance between holding companies accountable for their behavior and encouraging the kind of innovation that has defined the Internet's success.
While the concerns that many proponents of strong net neutrality rules hold may seem sensible, the truth is that pursuing draconian regulations in a knee-jerk reaction is simply unnecessary and could potentially hamper future innovation. Further, the demands to regulate broadband as a utility like the old phone monopolies of a departed era, I believe, are a step too far.
There does not seem to be any real evidence that ISPs have an incentive to violate net neutrality principles, simply because it is inherently important to their customers that they are able to access an open Internet, and in a competitive marketplace, angering your customers is a death knell to your business.
In fact, the kind of discrimination net neutrality supporters so fear seems to rear its head in other areas of the tech industry, but receives little scrutiny. Google, as much a gatekeeper to the Internet as any ISP, actively solicits money from companies to place products and services in favorable search locations on its interface. Small start-ups are certainly disadvantaged when web users are enticed to their bigger competitors on the world's most popular search engine.
Moreover, just the other week Amazon reportedly delayed shipping a bestselling book in an alleged effort to gain leverage when negotiating a deal with the book's publisher. It is hard to find a better example of the kind of behavior that strong net neutrality supporters would condemn in a similar situation involving an ISP and online content. One could argue that these two instances could cause greater consumer harm, yet we remain focused on regulating the Internet with a 20th-century mindset.
Unfortunately, the time and energy that has been spent fighting the net neutrality battle has diverted attention away from more pressing issues such as furthering broadband deployment in underserved minority communities or ensuring that all kids in both urban and rural areas have access to a laptop, tablet, or other smart device with access to affordable high-speed Internet.
The reality is many Americans rely on Internet technologies in a major way, and policymakers must prioritize policy issues that actually extend the vast benefits of the high tech industry and avoid tinkering around the edges in pursuit of an elusive regulatory utopia.
Ultimately, this net neutrality debate only exists because of legal and regulatory ambiguities caused by outdated and archaic laws and regulations. The best thing that could happen for every side of this debate would be for Congress to pass a new Communications Act that would clarify the confusion and disagreement. A new law could ensure that different parts of the Internet ecosystem operate under a uniform set of rules. This would give consumers and businesses a level playing field on which to compete, ensuring that the dynamism of the Internet continues to grow in the years to come.
While reforming the Communications Act will undoubtedly take some time to accomplish, regulators at the FCC are right to do what they can now on pressing issues. And Chairman Wheeler has the right framework in mind that avoids the pitfalls of antiquated telephone-era regulations so we can hopefully address the net neutrality debate and move on to other more worthwhile pursuits for the public.