Mobile Future

The Wrong Path to “Strong” Net Neutrality

It was eighty years ago this week that the Communications Act of 1934 was signed into law by President Roosevelt, the same year Donald Duck made his big screen debut, the trampoline was invented, Pat Boone was born, and the first cathode ray television sets were produced.  In short, it was a long, long time ago.

And remarkably, the 1934 legislation still casts an enormous shadow over 21st century American technology and our Internet-driven innovation economy.

In fact, for all of us who care deeply about protecting an open Internet and net neutrality, including Mobile Future and our members, this anniversary should be cause more for mobilization than celebration.

Here is why:

As I write this, there are some in our community who – in order to advance their unique conception of net neutrality – are calling on policymakers to graft eight decades of telephone regulation onto our unprecedented, American technological marvel called the Internet and potentially – by extension, – much of our innovation economy.

These arm-chair regulatory archaeologists would have us call their draconian approach “strong” or “real” net neutrality.

But if they succeed, the only “strong” and “real” results will be the long list of unintended consequences, which very well may threaten the health and vibrancy of the Internet, along with the goal of net neutrality itself.

In this mythical, brave new Title II world, any broadband service with a transmission component (including digital content streaming or downloads, cloud- and location-based services and other next-generation services), i.e., the entire Internet ecosystem – could be regulated like public utilities, dictating everything from the rates we pay to the bit rates we can receive.

While it is timely and important to examine thoughtfully which parts of the ’34 Act still have relevance, it’s essential to understand that we can (and must) ensure an innovative and competitive future without stifling life-changing technologies like broadband with ill-suited and cumbersome regulations of the past.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law held a hearing today to discuss whether the country’s anti-trust laws are sufficient to ensure net neutrality, and as we heard across the aisles of Congress, as well as across industries and across the nation, everyone supports an open and free Internet.

However, this thing folks are now calling “strong” net neutrality does not require a reclassification of broadband providers as Title II common carriers.  The claim that rules meant for the analog, all-copper, fixed, narrowband monopoly telephone era would be good for today’s mobile, tech-savvy consumers should give everyone tremendous pause.

Broadband technologies have benefited from a pro-consumer, pro-innovation, bipartisan, and above all restrained regulatory approach since President Clinton and Congress passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, transforming our way of life as demand for these services continues to grow. This policy of regulatory restraint gave birth to one of America’s greatest successes – a thriving Internet economy.

The same can’t be said of industries saddled with public utility regulation.   One need not look too far from home to see that regulated utilities like water and electricity have failed to attract anything near the degree of investment and innovation that we have seen flooding into the technologies and services that have enabled the Internet.

As the policymakers explore innovative avenues for ensuring an open Internet, there will be lots of opportunity in coming months for envisioning progressive and effective policy approaches.  The most important thing right now is for all parts of the Internet innovation ecosystem, along with consumers and citizens everywhere, to come together and recognize that Title II reclassification is not the solution and must be taken off the table as a path forward for our nation’s economy, for the future of the Internet, and for our common national goal of strong – and real – net neutrality.