Let’s put the scare tactics and apocalyptic rhetoric aside. The Internet worked great in 2014 when there were no net neutrality rules. And it still works great today after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) applied Ma Bell regulations from 1934 to broadband.
In fact, I am quite confident that the online experience for the overwhelming majority of users has not really changed for better or worse because of the new regulations. The Internet’s future, however, is uncertain because of ideological bureaucrats at the FCC who adopted a misguided regulatory approach that has chilled investment and offers no protections against excessive bureaucratic interference in the years ahead.
I support an open Internet that allows users the freedom to create, connect, and innovate. In 2015, I offered former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to come together to craft a permanent legislative solution for net neutrality that would ban blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization of Internet traffic. My Republican colleagues and I even put forward a draft bill doing exactly that. Chairman Wheeler rejected this bipartisan outreach. Instead, he and his staff lobbied to block such discussion from happening in Congress.
Chairman Wheeler then issued an order that simultaneously gave the FCC authority to regulate the Internet under laws designed for phone monopolies and removed all authority the Federal Trade Commission had to police broadband providers. While he assured the public that his FCC would not use this new authority to restrict online practices, as years pass and officials move on, past promises of regulatory restraint will inevitably leave with them. What remains, however, is wide legal latitude for the FCC to touch any and every corner of the Internet.
These regulations are already having a negative impact on Internet infrastructure. While not a problem in places like Silicon Valley or New York City, 34 million Americans today lack access to broadband services at home, and there is evidence that the FCC’s onerous regulations have chilled the capital investments that are needed to deploy broadband throughout the country.
As innovation on the Internet thrives, demand for data rises, and the stock market hits all-time highs, one would expect broadband investment to continue growing as it has for two decades. Instead, the US has “experienced the first-ever decline in broadband investment outside of a recession,” according to current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Indeed, annual investment is down 5.5 percent in 2016 compared to 2014, the last year before the new FCC regulations took effect. This is a troubling sign that private investment may be having second thoughts about the ability to turn a future profit under an excessive regulatory regime.
Don’t leave Internet at mercy of fickle government officials
We have also now seen how the regulations can be confusing and arbitrary for new digital offerings. While Chairman Wheeler initially praised T-Mobile’s Binge On zero-rating service as “highly innovative and highly competitive,” by the end of his tenure he was waging regulatory war against the zero-rating plans of other providers as violations of net neutrality. Instead of the marketplace choosing what works best for consumers, the Internet is now at the mercy of fickle government officials. This regulatory uncertainty inevitably creates disincentives to challenge old business models with innovative offerings.
While the FCC’s 2015 rules may soon be consigned to the dustbin of history, the last few months have shown us all that political winds can and often do shift suddenly. The only way to truly provide certainty for open Internet protections is for Congress to pass bipartisan legislation.
Rather than heavy-handed and open-ended regulations that stifle the Internet, we need a statute offering clear and enduring rules that balance innovation and investment for all parts of the Internet ecosystem. After all, online innovation is a virtuous circle—online companies need robust and widely available broadband networks to reach their customers, and Internet service providers need the online experience to be compelling enough to drive subscriber demand.
The certainty of bipartisan law transcends administrations. Over the past few months, many of my Democrat colleagues have grown to appreciate this more. Regardless of what happens at the FCC with the 2015 rules, I again stand ready to work on legislation protecting the open Internet that sets forth clear digital rules of the road for both the Internet community and government regulators.