POLITICS DECEMBER 10, 2011
When the Federal Communications Commission voted last December, after much deliberation, to create rules requiring Internet service providers (ISPs) to give users of the Web equal access to all content, it looked like a decade-long fight over the issue commonly known as “net neutrality” had finally been settled. But rather than accept defeat, Republicans in Congress have been busy waging a steady war against the new measures: In April, the Republican-controlled House voted to overturn the rules and, just last month, Republicans forced an unsuccessful party-line vote in the Senate to do the same.
Throughout their months-long campaign, Republicans have consistently argued that net neutrality represents yet another set of regulations bound to kill jobs and stifle the vital creative energies of the Internet. “It’s time to push back,” urged Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who was at the forefront of the latest GOP assault. “If we’re going to keep an open and free Internet and keep the jobs it spawns, we should reject the FCC regulation on net neutrality.” But Republicans couldn’t be more wrong about the consequences of the FCC’s new rules. Rather than stifling free enterprise, the regulations are a farsighted effort to maintain and safeguard the kind of free and fair competitive environment that has played such a large role in the Internet’s success.
The 1934 Communications Act, first signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt and revamped in 1996 as the Telecommunications Act, tasks the FCC with promoting telephone and video service competition. Last year, after Comcast successfully asserted in court that it had the right to slow its cable customers’ access to file-sharing service BitTorrent, Congress expanded the FCC’s authority, tasking it with regulating all Internet service. That allowed the Commission to draw up standards of fairness for Internet use—as well as to impose fines or bring injunctions against companies that slow down Internet service in violation of those standards.
Despite the fretting from congressional Republicans since the FCC vote, few in the tech sector have viewed the new regulations as a jobs killer. “The reality is nobody has said they are not fine with the regulations. Plenty of venture capitalists are encouraged,” says Harold Feld, Legal Director of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based communications policy public interest group. “No companies or unions have come out and said this rule has killed jobs. Companies, when prodded by the House, said they were comfortable to comply.” When it comes to large, preexisting tech companies like Facebook and Microsoft, it seems clear that net neutrality has little to no significant impact on their business operations. “Those companies by and large agreed that they could live with the watered-down version of net neutrality rules that the FCC issued in December 2010,” says Matt Wood, Policy Director for the Free Press Action Fund, which has filed suit against the FCC on the grounds that the new regulations don’t go far enough. “Nevertheless, extreme elements decided to make this into a political football.”
And while there is no evidence to support the GOP’s claims of mass layoffs among established companies in the short term, net neutrality poses real potential benefits in the long term—both by providing incentives for investment in broadband networks and in guaranteeing protections to entrepreneurs and investors. “There is no good reason to think that net neutrality rules deter investment in broadband networks,” says Wood. “If anything, they’ll encourage more spending to keep up with the demand for bandwidth. Big ISPs like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon want to make more money by selling priority access to certain websites and applications. They can only do that in an environment in which the Internet is so congested that web-based companies and their customers are willing to pay a premium for such prioritization.” Net neutrality can also help upstart entrepreneurs, the twenty somethings creating mobile applications in garages in Palo Alto, by ensuring that they have the opportunity to compete fairly against larger corporations that may be delivering similar Internet service or content.
Indeed, the underlying Republican argument that net neutrality regulations will throttle the previously free and entrepreneurial landscape of the Internet gets it exactly backwards—the new rules are actually intended to preserve those exact qualities. “Real net neutrality rules prohibit … unreasonable discrimination among websites and applications,” explains Wood. “That means ISPs need to build better networks rather than trying to cut back on investments, create artificial scarcity, and then extract higher tolls from content providers and users.” The FCC regulations aren’t about imposing new hurdles and costs on companies, in other words, but a vital safeguard for the Internet’s best features. Al Franken, one of the few senators who seems to grasp the stakes of the debate, phrased it best: “Net neutrality and the rules the FCC passed are about keeping the Internet the way it is today and the way it has always been.”
What effect this attack on net neutrality may have on the broader national conversation on Internet freedom remains to be seen. The failed GOP vote may prove significant to the extent that it emboldens the FCC to aggressively enforce its new regulations. “Most importantly, the Senate has now endorsed the FCC’s protections of an open nondiscriminatory Internet,” said John Blevins, a communications law professor at Loyola College of Law in New Orleans. “Although the FCC is an independent agency, it will be encouraged by the political cover the Senate vote provides.”
Ultimately, however, the fate of net neutrality won’t be decided by Congress. Verizon and Metro PCS have filed suit against the FCC, saying the rules go beyond the agency’s jurisdiction as a communications services regulator. “Repeal was a partisan political stunt that had no chance of passing,” says Blevins. “The real policy fight is in the courts, and it’s hard to see this vote influencing judges one way or the other.”
Pierce Stanley is a social media intern at The New Republic.