FCC rules would harm the Internet

The Detroit News

If it ain't broke, Washington will find a way to break it. That seems to be the logic behind the Federal Communications Commission's proposal to change the way it regulates broadband Internet service.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wants to treat it as a 1930s public utility to protect "net neutrality," the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.

Without the new rules, Internet traffic is already treated equally in most cases. Trying to pre-empt companies from the temptation of creating fast and slow Internet lanes is a bad reason to overhaul long-standing policy.

The proposed regulations would stifle investment and unbridled innovation in one of the few burgeoning industries in the U.S. economy, and potentially open the Internet to worse regulation in the future.

Wheeler has proposed what President Barack Obama asked for: the "strongest possible rules."

That means the FCC wants to reclassify broadband Internet service from an information service — which leaders of both political parties, including President Bill Clinton, and two court rulings have aggressively upheld — to a communications service.

Wheeler argues the FCC can create new rules to ban prioritizing content for pay, and generally govern how broadband companies provide Internet service to consumers, as well as control behind-the-scenes business arrangements between companies.

These regulations centralize federal power over what has already been a completely free and open Internet, ironically giving big corporations an advantage over smaller companies simply by the number of their representatives who can lobby bureaucrats and others.

The rules also would give the FCC power to decide which business terms and practices are "just and reasonable." In an industry where apps, websites and sharing platforms change drastically from day to day, this kind of authority can only burden technological innovation and the investments that come with it.

Other language in Wheeler's regulations is disturbingly and vaguely intrusive. For example, there's no way to predict how a future chairman or political leaders might apply something like "a general Open Internet conduct standard," which the FCC could use to judge whether some new practices are appropriate.

FCC commissioner Ajit Pai says the proposed plan could open the door to new fees and taxes, and government control over prices from Internet providers to customers, something Wheeler promised the rules wouldn't do. But until the commission reveals the 332-page plan to the public after voting on it, no one will know for sure.

The rules face a long road ahead. Though Wheeler has tried to beef up the legal defense for a proposal that's already been struck down in court, the issue will be heavily litigated. Republicans in Congress are also trying to pre-empt the regulations with legislation, an admittedly uphill battle.

Wheeler credits the FCC with "allowing" monumental Internet advances over the past few decades, but the reality is this sector has thrived precisely because the federal government has kept away.

If these rules are adopted, the future of the Internet and free movement of information looks much dimmer.