The fringe push for so-called ‘net neutrality’ has taken a frightening turn after many of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) rules were thrown out by a U.S. appeals court earlier this year. The effort to reclassify Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as a public utility under Title II of Communications Act of 1934 – much more aggressive than net neutrality — would be a significant blow to freedom of speech and will certainly have devastating consequences for the innovation we’ve come to expect from the Internet.
While Title II supporters claim they are interested in maintaining fair competition and free speech, the policy they are advocating would challenge those goals. More troubling is that special interests and cronyism are blatant in FCC leadership, and following the money leads down a troubling path.
Fringe activists made no secret of their excitement when FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler appointed Gigi Sohn as the FCC’s Special Counsel for External Affairs late last year. Sohn built her career defending Silicon Valley’s public policy interests and has been a key player in the broadband regulation movement to turn the Internet into a public utility for years. In 2001, she co-founded a non-profit tech policy organization, Public Knowledge, which received millions of dollars from progressive groups like the Ford Foundation to advocate for greater government control over the Internet.
Sohn has dedicated her career to lobbying for both corporate heavyweights and special interest groups in support of excessive regulation and now she is in the position to not only expand government control, but then to exercise it as well. A look at Sohn’s professional resume explains her relentless push to broaden the FCC’s power to regulate the Internet: cronies rarely change their ways and Sohn aptly sees the value of having a seat inside government — the position certainly helps make sure special interests get their way.
Yet ironically, while many interested companies were happy to bankroll the campaign for net neutrality in 2010, they’re none too excited about the push towards reclassifying the Internet under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — the suicide mission Sohn is now spearheading.
Once a campaign supported by a wide swath of companies, many, like Google, have taken a back seat in the Title II push – and that silence is a statement in itself. In effect, the inmates have taken over the asylum, and companies that depend on a free and fair internet to operate are hiding under the sheets until the craziness subsides.
The Internet has transformed our world but progress depends on the freedom and flexibility of ISPs and content providers to connect, collaborate, adapt and invest quickly. Giving a government agency like the FCC unbridled control over the Internet will replace freedom and flexibility with restraint and supervision. This new structure leaves little hope for a vibrant, independent Internet but that’s exactly the vision Sohn and her extreme friends have in mind.
Erik Telford is Senior Vice President at the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity