Mobile Future

Rewriting—and Reclassifying—the Internet’s History?

The tech policy geek twittersphere was lighting up across America earlier this week, not because of Peyton Manning or Coldplay, or new poll numbers out of New Hampshire.   It lit up because one of its very own was the subject of a major profile in The New York Times. 

It is exceedingly rare when the mostly behind-the-scenes, hard-working staff of the Federal Communication Commission draw national media attention, and rarer still when it comes from the likes of the Times.

So when the Times on Sunday published an in-depth article about the FCC’s General Counsel Jon Sallet, a longtime and much admired friend, mentor and colleague to so many who have worked to advance technology and innovation policy, much of the tech policy world took quick notice.

No surprise here.  As the FCC’s chief lawyer, Sallet has played a pivotal role shaping–and a public role now defending in our courts—what many consider Chairman Tom Wheeler’s defining initiative:  GN docket no. 14-28.  The so-called “Open Internet Order” dredges up from Congress’ musty statutory vaults an old set of rules and authorities and applies them to our wired and wireless Internet, and the services, innovations, products, business models and technologies which comprise it.

Chief among these rules has been the controversial determination that in order to maintain the open Internet we all enjoy we need to go back generations in time and swaddle the most important social, economic and cultural tool the world has ever known in a legal framework called Title II that was set-up to govern the use of rotary phones nearly a century ago.

At the dawn of the Internet, few if any could have imagined that the future regulatory framework that would shape the evolution of this otherwise unstoppable force for rapid innovation and transformation would be left to three unelected regulators (who formed the majority of the Commission’s controversial party-line vote).

…Certainly not those whose coding brilliance gave rise in the 1960s to packet networking, and the first messages sent between network nodes over ARPANET from computer scientists at UCLA and Stanford.

…Definitely not those forward-thinking policymakers–Republicans and Democrats—who in the 1990s realized we needed to think anew about how we adapt, modernize and make more flexible and nimble our grossly outdated and weighty regulatory structures so they could inspire, not inhibit, innovation and America’s Internet leadership.

One of the key leaders among these forward-looking policymakers was my old boss, Vice President Al Gore, for whom I worked for several years at the White House. Gore knew early on that the outdated statutes and mindsets shaping our communications networks needed not a minor touch-up, but radical surgery.

And he was not alone.

Joining together in common, bipartisan cause across the aisle, across industries and with innovators and legal thinkers far and wide, he and others set out to reshape not just the clauses of our communications law, but the very way we should think about technology policy. Their tenacious work brought us the Telecommunications Act of 1996, whose signing 20 years ago I wrote about this week in Morning Consult.

Through their work and vision, we all have benefited from one of the most successful policy frameworks ever conceived in Washington—a bipartisan framework guided by the principle that when it comes to innovation policy, government’s greatest contribution is to show restraint and flexibility in achieving the goal we all share of encouraging competitive markets, enabling innovation and ensuring open, accessible networks.  This view has underpinned almost two decades of Internet-fueled innovation and economic growth for our nation.

Vice President Gore laid out his vision for this new approach to communications policy in a landmark speech he gave in 1994 at UCLA, which the Times rightly characterizes as calling for “an overhaul of rules for phone and cable communications to encourage the development of the coming Internet economy.”  The article concludes with Sallet noting “we look back now and see that was incredibly prescient.”

As someone who worked for Al Gore in 1996 and has been engaged in Internet policy issues ever since, this linkage seems strained.

Gore’s speech is worth re-reading, particularly now that our courts, our Congress and our candidates, along with U.S. companies and consumers must come to grips with the sweeping implications of the FCC Order.

In his remarks, Vice President Gore:

  • Explicitly warns against subjecting the Internet to “a patch-work quilt of old approaches.”
  • Sees the massive potential of the information future and declares “This Administration will not let existing regulatory structures impede or distort the evolution of the communications industry,” and,
  • Vows in his speech’s press release to “clear from the road the wreckage of outdated regulations and allow a free-flowing traffic of ideas and commerce for the benefit of all Americans.”

Al Gore was crystal clear: Modern regulatory solutions that unlock the full potential of our information future will not be found in the rotary phone rules of the past.  In this respect, he was indeed prescient.  I leave it to readers to decide for themselves whether the FCC’s polar opposite Title II approach continues or contradicts this vision that has served our nation so well for the past two decades.