Dorgan wants an Internet takeover

Kelly Cobb Contributor
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Last week, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) gave a keynote speech before a crowd of Internet regulation supporters and stated some amusing falsehoods about the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) attempt to take over the Internet. At a summit held by the organization Free Press, Sen. Dorgan claimed that the government developed the Internet, established the rules underpinning net neutrality when it created the Internet, and that the attempt by the FCC to takeover the management of networks is not a government takeover.

Sen. Dorgan is correct that the very first data networks were developed with the Department of Defense and various universities, but the Internet as we know it was not developed by the government. Private businesses and individuals build the data networks, write the software, own the servers and computers, and develop the content and websites. All of these components make up the Internet ecosystem and none of them (sans some websites and military networks) were created or are owned by the government.

Private companies and individuals have spent hundreds of billions of dollars developing our nation’s Internet, including over $60 billion last year alone just to build the networks. The so-called net neutrality regulations that Sen. Dorgan wants would regulate how these data networks are managed. Under them, the FCC would establish rules on “reasonable” network management practices—where the FCC would define “reasonable.”

Sen. Dorgan dismissed the argument by the free-market community that this is a government takeover, claiming “nothing could be further from the truth.” But that’s like saying the government isn’t taking over the auto industry, just telling car companies what models they can and can’t make. That they aren’t taking over health care, just telling insurance companies what plans they can and can’t offer.

Net neutrality is a government takeover. The free-market community isn’t arguing that under these specific regulations the government will now own the industry—though that is the end goal of many net neutrality proponents like Free Press. Opponents argue that under the FCC’s net neutrality regulations the industry becomes the near absolute pawn of the government. When management practices are approved or denied by a government bureaucrat, it is a certainly a government takeover. And when the first of such regulatory steps tap into the very spine of the Internet—the networks on which everything else depends—that opens the door for further regulation and government intrusion.

It also does not assuage concerns that the FCC, Sen. Dorgan, and Free Press want to completely reclassify Internet access under a different section of the 1934 Communications Act called Title II, only to simply use “forbearance”—or voluntarily restraint—from applying every single regulation in that section to the Internet. The FCC’s forbearance could be temporary and subject to electoral tides and politics, not the consumer-driven free-market. This should be a concern for people on all sides of the political spectrum, who can easily envision specific regulations they oppose suddenly popping up on the FCC’s agenda.

During the speech, Sen. Dorgan also repeated an aft-made claim by pro-Internet regulation groups that the legal underpinning for net neutrality—what he calls the “discrimination rules”—have existed since the dawn of the Internet. This again is false. Such rules were merely proposed in the FCC’s initial net neutrality push. Further, if anything they are only thinly and precariously justified under the Title II regulations that proponents want and have yet to apply to the Internet. In fact, the Internet has never been subject to such regulation, a precedent established by the U.S. Congress, the FCC under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sen. Dorgan and groups like Free Press can’t rewrite history or the law, but so long as they continue their push for onerous Internet regulation, free-market opponents can point out just how much of a government takeover their plan really is.

Kelly William Cobb serves as executive director of Americans for Tax Reform’s Digital Liberty Project, an organization dedicated to promoting free-market tech and telecommunications policy.  Mr. Cobb also manages www.StopETaxes.com, a campaign to fight Internet taxation.