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A Meat-Axe for Surgery: The FCC’s Net Neutrality Proposal

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Last week, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler announced, via an op-ed in Wired, magazine, that the FCC would reclassify the American Internet infrastructure as a utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1934.

You read that correctly: they are going to use a law written 80 years ago and signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to decide how the Internet should operate.

Ostensibly to protect us from our service providers, Wheeler and his Democratic counterparts on the Commission decided, at the behest of President Obama, to change how the Internet operates, massively.

Let’s be clear, though: outside a noisy band of activists, no one believes that this action is either necessary or advisable.

The Obama administration guide to significant policy decisions stipulates that, rather than taking a practical approach to solve problems, or potential problems, it must be driven by an ideological desire to achieve a stated goal. In this case, Chairman Wheeler has concluded that using a meat-axe to conduct surgery on the Internet is his only legitimate option.

This despite the fact that Senator John Thune (R-SD) is currently working on legislation in Congress to address some of the concerns raised by Net Neutrality advocates. In a speech earlier this week, Thune warned that: “The White House and the FCC [both] appear determined to avoid meaningful bipartisan policy-making any way that they can.”

Not long after the FCC’s announcement, former FCC Chairman Michael Powell stated that the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) will most likely sue over the Title II declaration. The tech news site Fierce Cable quoted Powell as saying: “I think it’s just too dramatic, too serious a change not to ask the court to review the propriety of what the commission did, particularly when so much of it rests on whether it had the authority to do it in the first place.”

Rather than plowing massive investment back into their networks, Internet Service Providers will pay hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees fighting Title II in court–a process likely to take years. In that scenario the only winners are the lawyers for both sides, who will enjoy a good laugh at their new beach houses as we wonder why Netflix won’t stop buffering.

Since its creation 25 years ago, the Internet has spurred the greatest innovative period in human history. Broadband, and the products and services that have been created around it, have fundamentally changed the way most Americans live their lives.

All of this has happened because Bill Clinton’s White House and Newt Gingrich’s Congress were far-sighted enough to see that in 1996, heavy regulation of a burgeoning industry was ill-advised. And now, after we’ve seen billions of dollars invested, after hundreds of thousands of new American jobs have been created, and after smart phones have freed us from our desks, the FCC is planning to place its governmental clamp on the system.

It’s the wrong idea, at the wrong time, implemented badly.

The Title II decision will not spur new innovation and investment. It will spawn uncertainty and stagnation as all the players, from big cable and telephone companies to small app developers sit and wait as an unnecessary fight drags on.

For an administration that claims to be so progressive, and care so much about the middle class, Title II seems like a giant step backward–about eight decades backward.

Reed Galen is a Republican political consultant in California. He can be reached at rgalen@gmail.com.


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