A curious pep rally for net neutrality

Ev Ehrlich Contributor
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The advocacy group Free Press is inviting Twin Cities residents to turn out on Thursday for what it calls a public hearing on the “future of the Internet.”  But Free Press won’t be talking about how to bring you a faster connection, or how to bring high-speed Internet to the rural and urban communities that it doesn’t reach today.  Instead, the event is going to be a pep rally for imposing new, and to say the least, peculiar, regulations on the broadband Internet, under the name “net neutrality.”

Free Press is a strident cheerleader for these “net neutrality” regulations, as are Federal Communications Commission members Michael Coops and Mignon Clyburn, the two main attractions at the event in South High School.

Net neutrality, as proposed by these advocates, means that everything on the Internet has to travel at the same speed.  Its cheerleaders think this sounds egalitarian and, therefore democratic.  But it has nothing to do with democracy.  Imagine that your wanted to get your heart monitor connected to a hospital without interruption, or if someone wanted to offer a better version of Skype that didn’t freeze up, or if a promoter wanted to put a hi-def Black-Eyed Peas concert or the World Cup on the Internet.  Free Press’ “neutral” idea would stop them from doing so because they would need an uninterrupted signal to provide this service.  It’s like saying that everybody has to buy Sears’ “Better,” but no one can get “Good” or “Best.”  So even if “neutral” sounds good, it means that the Internet won’t fulfill its full potential.

That’s bad enough, but it gets worse.  In April, the courts told the FCC it didn’t have the legal right to regulate the Internet this way.  So the FCC now claims it has the power to regulate the entire Internet the way Ma Bell was regulated almost eight decades ago.   That would mean the end of America’s undeniably successful and bipartisan policy of limited regulation of broadband — the policy that gave you the fast, open Internet you use today.

That’s the real danger here — that this proposed regulation would put in danger the tens of billions of dollars in private investment that has poured into the U.S. broadband market over the last 10 years, creating jobs and making it the most innovative broadband market in the world. Even in the grim economy of recent years, billions of dollars continue to be invested in broadband infrastructure and applications.  We should be expanding the speed and availability of the Internet, not holding it back with the regulations of generations ago.

The good news is that the “neutrality” cheerleaders are growing more and more isolated.  Recently, Google and Verizon jointly proposed an alternative, compromise framework to Congress that would avoid the regulations championed by Free Press and its friends in high places.  But this attempt at reasonable compromise was rewarded with vilifying rhetoric from Free Press and other advocates who would be out of work if the “problem” of “net neutrality” were ever resolved.

It’s chilling to think Commissioners Copps and Clyburn, if joined by Chairman Genachowski, could make worse the already weak economy by threatening the broadband investment spigot with net neutrality regulations.  If they truly think that we need a radically different broadband policy — or that the compromise fashioned by Google and Verizon won’t work — then let them submit their ideas to our elected representatives in Congress.  Perhaps they’re aware that a majority of members have already made clear they have no appetite for that proposal.

The rhetorical meeting at South High School isn’t all that will happen Thursday.   Coincidentally, Minnesota’s July unemployment figures will be released as well.  While Minnesota is doing better than the national average, the numbers should serve as a cold reminder that the regulations that Free Press favors would be an unwanted drag on the nascent recovery, as well as a recipe for an Internet that’s stuck in “neutral.”

Ev Ehrlich is the former Undersecretary of Commerce for President Clinton and a former assistant director at the Congressional Budget Office.  Mr. Ehrlich is a nationally recognized policy expert on technology and broadband issues, and founded ESC Company, an economic consulting company in Washington, DC.