One of the most ironic developments in telecom policy has to be the recent campaign by self-styled advocates of a "free and open internet" to preserve heavy federal regulations on how online service is delivered. In their zeal to tip the scales in their favor, they're proven to be all thumbs.
The Federal Communications Commission recently closed public comment on its proposal to reverse a controversial 2015 order that classifies the Internet as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act, a New Deal-era law. The proposal has received a record number of comments — more than 22 million.
Supporters of this regulatory scheme say this shows the intensity and fervor of the public's interest in the issue. But there's a lot they aren't telling us.
First, that overregulation stunts investment and innovation. We're already seeing this happen with the Internet as a direct result of Title II, with estimates showing a $150-$200 billion reduction in investment that might have otherwise occurred over the five-year period that started when reclassification was first proposed. All told, telecommunications investment is roughly 25 percent less than it should be, owing to the regulatory edict.
Second, it appears that at least 5.8 million of the comments on the new regulation are fake, according to analysis conducted by the National Legal and Policy Center. The center's audit of online traffic found that the exact same comments were submitted millions of times, via "various fake email domains and U.S. address generator programs." Although other analyses have found suspicious comment patterns on both sides of the issue, these 5.8 million comments invariably advocated for the same position — support for Title II."
Of course, sleight of hand is nothing new to this particular debate. Even the term "net neutrality" is deceptive. All providers today support an Internet that ensures transparency and equality, i.e., net neutrality. Don't be misled. What's at issue here is Title II — the way by which some believe net neutrality should be enforced.
Without getting too far into the weeds, Title II can be best described as a rule that allows the U.S. government to apply more taxes and overregulation to Internet service providers and, ultimately, on consumers.
Until the FCC's controversial final 2015 order, the Internet was genuinely open and free. In 1996, Bill Clinton-era officials considered regulating the Internet as a public utility, but judged that doing so would be counterproductive. Instead, they opted for what was called a "light touch," to allow for a maximum of innovation and competition.
It's worth noting that this light touch approach is what has largely given us the Internet ecosystem we Americans enjoy today. And because American businesses had the freedom to innovate without undue interference, taxpayers have been winners too. In a summary of comments National Taxpayers Union filed with the FCC earlier this year, we noted that an unfettered Internet has yielded serious savings for governments.
These include cloud-based data storage, teleconferencing among agencies, online licensing applications, and more efficient human resources policies for government employees. Add in the potential future benefits of breakthroughs like superfast 5G wireless service, among them traffic system management and first responder communications, and the payoff from smart policy is only higher.
Alas, another unfortunate result of the Title II back-and-forth is that left-leaning local governments are repackaging efforts to burden their taxpayers with municipal fiber programs as well as new regulations that could hamper the rollout of more networks. Given the uneven fiscal track record of local government-sponsored Internet, these developments could signal new obstacles to a vibrant national network.
More than ever before, fact-based analysis and decision making can drive policy. We cannot give legs to debates rooted in misleading claims, and this current net neutrality discussion is a notable example.
Activist groups advocating for the perpetuation of Title II will stop at nothing to convince Americans their Internet freedoms are in grave peril (even when they're not) and pursue other confrontations with leaders on behalf of their unpersuasive arguments. That's their right, but it shouldn't deter public officials from acting in the interests of the millions of consumers, small business owners, and taxpayers who agree that more government involvement with the Internet is not the answer.
Now with the public comment period closed, we hope the FCC will move quickly and, based on years of solid experience and facts, protect Americans from Title II. Congress can affirm this decision with legislation. Then our nation can keep moving forward, with a free and future-focused Internet.
Pete Sepp is President of National Taxpayers Union, a nonpartisan citizen group founded in 1969 to work for limited government and economic freedom.
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