Republicans, FCC Commissioners Push To Make Secret Net Neutrality Plan Public

AP Photo/Gregory Bull
AP Photo/Gregory Bull

One would think the American people had quite enough of secret regulatory schemes after ObamaCare, but it looks as if the Left took the secrecy, deception, and “pass it to find out what’s in it” strategy of ObamaCare as the model for all future power grabs. ObamaCare for the Internet, also known as “Net Neutrality,” is getting shoved down our throats the same way, with a plan kept secret from the public, while gauzy rhetoric about a more “free and open Internet” fills the air. Why does anyone think a secret plan blessed by the most power-hungry Administration of modern times is going to make anything more “free and open,” or even cheaper?

Keeping the big scheme under wraps from both the public and their congressional representatives does not seem to be an auspicious beginning for a regulatory agenda that would supposedly improve an online universe dedicated to the free flow of information. (By the way, where are all the “information longs to be free” no-secrecy wikileaking crusaders, while an Administration noted for its control-freak Panopticon surveillance is pushing an Internet takeover that’s a more closely-guarded secret than the battle plan for retaking Mosul from ISIS?)

As USA Today reports, congressional Republicans are trying to give the public a peek at the proposal, with assistance from two FCC commissioners – one of whom, Ajit Pai, has been predicting a pitchforks-and-torches response if the American people get to see this thing before it becomes The Settled Law Of The Land:

A key Republican lawmaker in Congress called for Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler to make proposed net neutrality regulations public before a planned Thursday vote on the measure.

In the latest wrinkle in the Republicans’ battle to quash Wheeler’s proposals, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who’s also the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, sent a letter today to Wheeler, questioning whether the FCC has been “independent, fair and transparent” in crafting the rules to protect content on the Internet.

“Although arguably one of the most sweeping new rules in the commission’s history, the process was conducted without using many of the tools at the chairman’s disposal to ensure transparency and public review,” he said.

Chaffetz urged Wheeler to publicly release the 332-page draft order that was given to the other four commissioners nearly three weeks ago and appear at a House Oversight hearing Wednesday before a vote at the FCC’s monthly meeting Thursday.

Also today, FCC commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly too asked for Wheeler to release the proposal to the public and postpone the Thursday vote to allow for 30 days of public comment.

He also asked Wheeler to reconsider testifying at a House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform hearing Wednesday and allow for a period of public review before the FCC votes on the regulations.

One of the few things we do know about the proposal is that its legal authority is drawn from the Communications Act of 1934 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Those sound like great foundations for building a bridge to the future. Could we maybe have something that wasn’t spawned from laws written when telephones had little cranks on the side to charge them up?

Wheeler keeps insisting that he doesn’t have to make the rules public because he reviewed plenty of public feedback through Internet forum comments and roundtable discussions before the rules were written. In other words, he’s interested in comments from people who have heard the airy promises and political rhetoric of Net Neutrality supporters, but not from people who have actually read the rules he seeks to impose. That worked out great with ObamaCare, didn’t it? All the Little People needed to know was that nobody would take away their insurance plan, nobody would take away their doctor, and they’d save $2,500 a year on health insurance. Don’t worry about what the rules actually say – just have faith in the good intentions of their authors.

Chaffetz quotes the thoughts of a certain Senator Barack Obama on the need for transparency when a previous set of important regulations were presented to the public and Congress before the FCC vote in 2007: “He specifically noted while a certain proposal ‘may pass the muster of a federal court, Congress and the public have the right to review any specific proposal and decide whether or not it constitutes sound policy. And the commission has the responsibility to defend any new proposal in public discourse and debate.” Doubtless this is another position Obama has “evolved” on, now that he’s President and has lost patience with the machinery of representative government.

FCC Commissioner Pai, along with Lee Goodman of the Federal Election Commission, unleashed a broadside against government control of the Internet in a Politico op-ed on Monday:

For its part, the FCC is about to scrap a Clinton-era bipartisan consensus that the Internet should be free from intrusive government regulation. On Thursday, the agency will likely vote to impose rules upon almost every nut and bolt of the Internet, from the digital connection at your house to the core of the network. In so doing, it’ll dust off the heavy-handed monopoly rules designed for Ma Bell back in the 1930s.

How heavy-handed? The FCC will start regulating broadband rates. It will decree, based on a vaguely defined “Internet conduct” standard, whether companies can offer consumer-friendly service plans (such as T-Mobile’s Music Freedom program, which offers customers unlimited access to streaming music). It will institutionalize innovation by permission — giving advisory opinions on prospective business plans or practices (and companies will ask before innovating for fear of what will happen if they don’t). It will even assert the power to force private companies to physically deploy broadband infrastructure and route Internet traffic in specific ways. And in a gift to the plaintiffs’ bar, the FCC will deputize trial lawyers to file class-action lawsuits if they contend that any of these rules are being violated.

These Internet regulations will deter broadband deployment, depress network investment and slow broadband speeds. How do we know? Compare Europe, which has long had utility-style regulations, with the United States, which has embraced a light-touch regulatory model. Broadband speeds in the United States, both wired and wireless, are significantly faster than those in Europe. Broadband investment in the United States is several multiples that of Europe. And broadband’s reach is much wider in the United States, despite its much lower population density.

So why is the FCC swinging the regulatory sledgehammer? It’s not to guarantee an open Internet. Nowhere in the 332-page plan — which you won’t see until after the FCC votes on it — can one find a description of systemic harms to consumers or entrepreneurs online. And small wonder, for the Internet is open today. Consumers can easily access the content of their choice. Online entrepreneurs can and do innovate freely.

No, the purpose is control for control’s sake. Digital dysfunction must be conjured into being to justify a public-sector power grab. Aside from being a bad deal for everyone who relies on the Internet, this Beltway-centric plan also distracts the FCC from what it should be focusing on: increasing broadband competition and giving consumers better broadband choices.

Pai and Goodman draw troubling parallels to the endless FEC quest to regulate political speech on the Internet, a clear sign that when enough bureaucratic fat accumulates within the arteries of communication, even the First Amendment can have a stroke. Perhaps one reason this Net Neutrality push has gained support from young people is that they don’t appreciate the viral nature of bureaucratic control: once they get their foot into any door, the volume of rules multiplies until everything they swore they would keep “free” is crushed beneath their weight.

Long before the free exchange of information is banned outright, it can be made so troublesome and expensive that people just don’t bother. Put the same mindset that gave you the IRS targeting of the Tea Party and pro-life groups in charge of the Internet, and you’ll see what I mean. Of course, you won’t be able to discuss the painful lesson you’ve learned online, not without filling out a stack of forms and waiting for a bureaucrat who strongly disagrees with your political views to approve them.

“The bottom line is that Internet freedom works,” Pai and Goodman conclude. “It is difficult to imagine where we would be today had the government micromanaged the Internet for the past two decades as it does Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service. Neither of us wants to find out where the Internet will be two decades from now if the federal government tightens its regulatory grip. We don’t need to shift control of the Internet to bureaucracies in Washington. Let’s leave the power where it belongs – with the American people.”

If the people pushing Net Neutrality were receptive to such appeals, they wouldn’t be fighting so hard to keep the plan secret from the American people and Congress – quaintly known as “lawmakers” in pre-Obama times – until the balance of Internet power has been shifted to the government forever. Lots of people have problems with the cable and phone companies. Why do any of them imagine, for one nanosecond, that Big Government will be less arrogant, overbearing, and intractable?


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