BARNETT: Thanks To Republicans, The Free Internet Is Flourishing

Joe Barnett Heartland Institute
Font Size:

One year ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) imposed the Restoring Internet Freedom (RIF) rule, and the internet is flourishing. The rule supplanted an Obama-era rule that regulated the internet like a utility monopoly instead of an information service platform.

Shockingly, the internet has not disappeared, as some “netizens” claimed it would under the new rule.

Consumer access has not suffered one iota, either. Indeed, in 2018, broadband speeds increased by almost 40 percent. Prices for wireless telephone services have continued to fall, and prices for internet services have not increased. Fifth Generation (5G) broadband services, which will accommodate increased video streaming and augmented and virtual reality, are becoming readily available.

Competition, which is overseen by the Federal Trade Commission under the guise of the Sherman Antitrust Act, is flourishing in the marketplace.

The so-called “net neutrality” rule adopted in 2015 under former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, an Obama appointee, was supposed to regulate the internet like the telephone company we used to call Ma Bell. Fortunately, Ma Bell is dead, along with its nationwide monopoly telephone network.

In the Bell-system era, roughly from enactment of the 1934 Communications Act until a federal antitrust case led to its breakup in 1982, AT&T (the parent company of the Bell companies) owned most of the telephones in the homes of Americans (which they rented). Regulation as a utility under Title II of the Communications Act gave Ma Bell a government-mandated monopoly on long-distance service, and it allowed it to charge for services at rates that guaranteed profits on its investments.

Under Ma Bell, every decade or so an innovation was introduced — the Princess Phone, touch-tone buttons, and “direct dialing” — no live operator needed! As a utility, the phone company had no incentive to invest in innovation. Similarly, and unsurprisingly, during the period in which the net neutrality regulation was in effect, investment in broadband networks, which carry an increasing amount of internet traffic, dropped, according to the FCC.

“The effect was particularly serious for smaller internet service providers — fixed wireless companies, small-town cable operators, municipal broadband providers, electric cooperatives, and others — that don’t have the resources or lawyers to navigate a thicket of complex rules,” according to the FCC.

Unlike the Bell system, the internet is a complex infrastructure of competing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) continuously delivering digital data to hundreds of millions of devices. AT&T and Verizon are successor companies to pieces of the Bell system (and a smaller monopoly, GTE). They are no longer utilities, but cellular telephone networks — and, now, broadband services — competing with other networks and ISPs.

Corporate giants that depend on the internet for their business model, such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Netflix have supported utility-style regulation. However, the conflict over internet freedom versus neutralism is not just another battle among corporations, but part of the larger ideological war between socialism and free-market capitalism.

A host of leftist foundations funded the net neutrality activism campaign that led to the 2015 Wheeler rule. These groups also vehemently opposed its repeal. For socialists, the Internet marketplace is one of the commanding heights of the economy. Government control of the internet is also the linchpin to achieving their goal of throttling free speech by banning ideas, individuals, and organizations they deem unacceptable.

Unfortunately, opponents of internet freedom are still at work. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Save the Internet Act on April 10. The bill passed the House 232 to 190, receiving all of the votes cast by Democrats and one Republican.

The bill was pronounced “dead on arrival in the Senate” by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who also said it would likely fail if it came up for a vote in the Senate, given the Republican majority. However, the idea of a tightly regulated, government-controlled internet lives on. Should Democrats regain a Senate majority and the White House, the issue will come roaring back.

“The Internet wasn’t broken in 2015, when the previous FCC imposed 1930s-era regulations,” according to the FCC. Why would we want to break it now?

Joe Barnett is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit group in Illinois that advocates for limited government.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.