Twenty years after the birth of the commercial Internet, tech entrepreneurs are warning that the once-bipartisan consensus on minimal regulation is falling to unfounded emotional fears.
In 1995, Congress ended restrictions against using the Internet for commercial purposes, ushering in decades of unprecedented innovation and growth, and Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of that epochal event.
A group of “tech elders” — led by online communications pioneer Daniel Berninger, and including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and John Perry Barlow of the Grateful Dead — marked the occasion with a visit to Washington, where they lobbied Congress to reaffirm its longstanding commitment to “light-touch” Internet regulation.
That bipartisan consensus, they claim, has been weakened in recent years, most notably by the push for “net neutrality” regulations intended to prevent Internet service providers (ISP’s) from either blocking legal content or prioritizing certain types of content by charging fees for faster access speeds. (RELATED: FCC Votes in Favor of Net Neutrality)
The Federal Communications Commission, with support from President Barack Obama, voted in February to impose just such regulations, reclassifying ISP’s as “common carriers” under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act— a law originally designed to regulate telephone networks.
Support for Title II was buoyed by popular apprehensions that without the regulations, ISPs would punish popular content providers like Netflix. Because relatively few content providers account for a large share of online traffic, the reasoning goes, ISPs have an incentive to either slow down that content or charge providers for faster access.
“These debates have proceeded in a realm of theory; as helping people deal with anxiety they have about gatekeepers over their communication,” Berninger told The Daily Caller News Foundation. Individuals develop “an emotional attachment” to communications technology, he explained, so “if the president is saying there is someone acting as a gatekeeper, people lose all sense of reason.” (RELATED: The Consumer Costs of Net Neutrality)
Entrepreneurs, though, “live and die with how the world actually works,” so must deal with reality, not theory. And the reality, according to Berninger, is that “the fundamental force that has driven the growth of Internet companies is the open Internet.”
Tech elder George Gilder, a futurist author and co-founder of the Discovery Institute, told TheDCNF that businesses have no incentive to interfere with Internet freedom. “Their interests are aligned with an open Internet,” he noted, “and the idea that Title II can impose an open internet is just quixotic.”
As part of its efforts to build popular and political support for that concept, the group is urging Congress to declare April 30 “Internet Independence Day,” which they hope will serve as a catalyst for bipartisan legislation overturning Title II. In its place, they suggest targeted measures sufficient to prevent anti-competitive behaviors, but without granting sweeping powers to federal bureaucrats. (RELATED: GOP Net Neutrality Bill Could Preempt Internet Regulation)
“The tech elders are staking their reputations to say that government that is the gatekeeper that we need to be worried about,” Berninger pointed out. “Why would a billionaire bother doing that? Because he or she became a billionaire by not going to Washington, D.C.”
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