Last Sunday, St. Louis Post-Dispatch business columnist David Nicklaus devoted his column to an attack on internet regulation:
Some beats, like banking, need tougher cops, but others, like the Internet, are doing fine with no cop at all.
So when the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission weighs in on an important Internet issue by vowing to become “a smart cop on the beat,” we should worry that the Web’s best years, characterized by rapid growth with little regulation, may be behind it.
Nicklaus was responding to comments by FCC chair Julius Genachowski who is releasing new rules governing broadband Internet service providers (ISPs). Genachowski declared that an open internet environment is essential to our continued economic and social well-being. He noted, however, that:
Notwithstanding its unparalleled record of success, today the free and open Internet faces emerging and substantial challenges. We’ve already seen some clear examples of deviations from the Internet’s historic openness. We have witnessed certain broadband providers unilaterally block access to VoIP applications (phone calls delivered over data networks) and implement technical measures that degrade the performance of peer-to-peer software distributing lawful content. We have even seen at least one service provider deny users access to political content.
Grenachowski indicated that the new rules will be based on the principles that underlie what we popularly speak of as “net neutrality,” which can be loosely summarized as follows:
• Free access: Users should be able to access their choice of legal internet content, including applications and services.
• Non-Discrimination: Broadband providers cannot favor or prohibit traffic over their networks based on content, even if that content competes with services sold by the provider.
• Transparency: Providers must be open about their network management practices and technologies since they can affect the ability of users to access desired content and applications.
Nicklaus’ comments were, as befits a reasonably responsible journalist, the most restrained among those Missourians who immediately leaped to defend the ISP’s longtime desire to be able to apply differential pricing based on content. He even conceded that one of the favorite objections lobbed by ISP representatives, that net neutrality would hamper network security by preventing providers from rooting out viruses and malware, is overstated since:
Any reasonable FCC regulation would surely allow the broadband companies to police their networks for harmful files.
Such moderation, however, has not been apparent in the public utterances of the Missouri Republican politicians who have jumped onto the issue wearing their best ideological boots, and wielding the cudgels provided by the ISPs whose interests they really, really want to protect.
In the letters to the editor section of the Post Dispatch, State Rep. Joe Smith (R-St. Charles), got all fired up about the impending disaster represented by new government regulation:
The Internet’s mind-boggling growth is not a product of government regulation. Private investment in infrastructure and innovation are responsible for today’s robust network. Now is no time to muck up progress by injecting the government into the mechanics of how the Internet is managed.
One can only assume that he is also overjoyed by the chaos that resulted from financial deregulation championed by his Republican colleagues in Washington. Good one, Joe — glad to see that the ideological blinders are still in working order.
Roy Blunt also chimed in, winning the prize for the number of pre-digested, partisan talking points he was able to shoehorn into his statement:
Today’s announcement was a solution in search of a problem. In creating new rules, the unelected Federal Communications Commission is bowing to liberal special interest groups – exactly the kind of behavior Barack Obama promised to end when he was elected president. The fact that the Chairman never indicated his plans during an oversight hearing held just last Thursday at the House Energy & Commerce Committee even though the broad topic of Internet regulation was addressed tells me that the Administration intended to avoid congressional oversight in its new rules. That fits a troubling pattern of unelected administrative czars and other officials who have been given unprecedented power without appropriate oversight from Congress
What do you bet that every Republican politician gets five RNC points each time he or she manages to say “unelected,” “czar,” and “liberal special interest group” in a public forum?
It goes without saying that this Republican sound and fury (and the echo provided by our newspaper business opiner, Nicklaus) doesn’t have much to do with reality. These gentlemen are simply functioning as megaphones to amplify the dishonest arguments developed by service providers.
As Free Press notes in their report on the top 10 net neutrality myths, Blunt’s catchy little mantra that the proposed regulations are a “solution in search of a problem” is stolen verbatim from the claims of ISPs:
… This is a constant refrain from Internet service providers (ISPs). Yet, quixotically, the same ISPs also repeatedly have stated their intention to violate the principles of the open Internet to reap profits from discrimination. Which is it? Either there is no problem, and they will never discriminate, or they have to discriminate to be profitable. This blatant contradiction illustrates the reality that the “solution in search of a problem” argument is nothing but misdirection.
The real threat is that the technology that enables discrimination is finally available to ISPs. Comcast’s secret blocking of BitTorrent is a concrete example of an anti-competitive use of this technology – which is being sold to ISPs as a method for profiting from discrimination. The examples of marketplace abuses that have occurred thus far are simply cautionary tales about the widespread, systemic change that would occur if ISPs were given a formal green light to control Internet content and applications.
Contrary to the claims of those ardent anti-regulation crusaders, Smith and Blunt, one of the reasons that we have a viable free internet is that its development was protected by appropriate regulation:
The open Internet as we know it would not exist if not for regulation. More than 40 years ago, the FCC helped create an environment where the Internet could flourish by preventing phone companies from interfering with traffic flowing over their networks. These rules were safeguards that turned the monopoly telephone system into an open platform for competition and innovation.
But in 2005, just as the Internet was becoming an essential technology for the average American, the FCC removed nearly all of the important protections. This decision is what sparked the current debate over Net Neutrality, and it is why the FCC’s pending move to protect the open Internet will be a partial restoration of rules – not “new” regulation
A third argument made by the service providers, hinted at by Smith and Blunt, and presented in its full glory by Nicklaus, is that reliable, golden oldie that has been so successful for
the pharmacological industries, namely that regulation would stifle the investment essential to further development and innovation. Free Press, however, points out that:
The rhetoric about Net Neutrality discouraging investment is just a general outgrowth of the reflexive but misguided belief that any and all regulation discourages investment. The evidence does not support this theory. During the years following the Telecommunications Act of 1996, ISP investment rose dramatically as new regulations were being implemented. Investment declined, however, in the period following the FCC’s dismantling of this regulatory regime
Nor, according to Free Press, is there any real reason to believe the ISP claim, repeated in the Nicklaus article, that net neutrality regulation, by hampering investment and development would lead to massive congestion on the net. As Free Press notes:
No one – neither the content and applications companies nor Net Neutrality advocates – is asking the FCC to foreclose ISPs’ ability to manage their networks. Both the Network Neutrality legislation in Congress and the rules outlined by Chairman Genachowski leave ISPs completely free to address congestion via reasonable network management practices
The ginned-up outrage of Smith and Blunt offer a preview what we will be hearing from their colleagues as this issue heats up during the review period for the new rules, though congressional Republicans have apparently dropped an effort to fight the regulations by denying the FCC funding. Of course, this reponse is only what one would expect from these white knights of big business. The real test will be the willingness of our Democratic leaders to speak out in defense of the new rules, and it may, once again, be up to us to keep them informed and honest.