Opinion: The way to revamp net neutrality
The collective palls of scandal (and alleged scandal), impasse and hyper-partisanship in the nation’s capital may have many voters thinking of the Beltway as a dysfunctional wasteland. But in reality, much of the machinery of government is, in fact, going full throttle trying to create jobs, spur growth and protect consumers. But this good news is routinely omitted from the daily news cycle.
A prime example of good government action is taking place at my old agency, the Federal Communications Commission, where Chairman Ajit Pai is focused on increased transparency and positive changes to outdated rules. Most recently, following a new openness that makes the text of every proposed major rule making public at least three weeks before any final vote, the FCC quickly acted to streamline internet regulation and clear away obsolete, depression area rules that threatened to turn the internet superhighway into a muddy dirt road.
Pai has his critics, of course. Some are concerned that eliminating these antiquated “utility” rules will undermine internet openness and “net neutrality.” While lawyers can legitimately argue about the merits of a Title I versus a Title II regulatory framework, there is general agreement that net neutrality and internet freedom have always been the norm and will continue to be the norm in the U.S. All internet providers have committed to such openness and the Federal Trade Commission is readily able to police those commitments.
Moreover, there is a major bipartisan effort underway in Congress to enact an even farther-reaching and permanent net neutrality law, which will truly bring the issue to a close. This movement is being given booster fuel by rising concerns over abuse of privacy following the recent Facebook drama, and the time is ripe for comprehensive reform to protect consumers online, bring real accountability and privacy protections to the big tech platforms as well as internet providers, and make net neutrality the permanent law of the land.
Unfortunately, the excessive partisanship and cynicism in Washington could cause us to miss this chance. Much of the energy needed for this reform is currently being diverted into a misguided attack on the Pai deregulation effort through a procedural tool called a “Congressional Review Act” resolution. This CRA calls for a show vote — one that puts Congress on record disapproving of Pai’s actions but this approach only returns the question to the uncertain Netherworld of political impasse, which continues to feed concerns that Washington is incapable of implementing new privacy rules and a permanent net neutrality statute.
Frustration with this kind of gamesmanship has led many states to look for workarounds to protect net neutrality and privacy on their own, an understandable but ultimately doomed effort. A patchwork of different requirements and regulations will leave too many gaps in place to genuinely protect online privacy, and it will introduce new friction to the system and slow down the internet while undermining new deployment that could close the digital divide. That’s a big step backwards for consumers.
Instead of short sighted state based contortions, we should continue to urge Congress to roll up its sleeves and get to work on a comprehensive internet bill. Our leaders in both parties have the same goals and vision as most Americans — a free and open internet available to every American, access to affordable fixed and mobile high-speed broadband in every home, school, library and business, and a competitive, jobs-producing communications marketplace with expanding investment and innovation.
Congress should follow the practical common sense example set by Pai with his forthright and open leadership.
Kathleen Abernathy is special counsel at Wilkinson Barker Knauer LLP. She served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from 2001 to 2005.