Elections aren’t always a good thing (I know that sounds un-American but hear me out…)
Elections are the bedrock of our democracy and one of the many things that make this country great. If an elected leader isn’t cutting it, the voters have the opportunity to kick him or her out of office every few years. That’s powerful stuff.
But when it comes to Net Neutrality, the very nature of elections puts the Internet at risk. Thanks to recent action by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Net Neutrality is now the province of the FCC.
On January 20, 2016, the nation’s new President will be inaugurated and he (or she) will appoint a new FCC Chairman to replace current Chairman Tom Wheeler. That person will have an outsized influence on the future of Net Neutrality and he (or she) may decide not to enforce the current rules or to change them all together. Everything is riding on the next President’s feeling about Net Neutrality. Although the campaign season is just getting started, we’re already getting a look at who the likely candidates will be and where they stand on Internet freedom.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has called the FCC’s decision to reclassify the Internet under Title II of the 1934 Telecommunications Act “one of the craziest ideas I’ve ever heard.”
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina took to CNN stating “Title II regulation gives the Federal Communications Commission nearly unlimited authority to micromanage, how, when and where Internet companies innovate.” She later told the crowd at TechCrunch Disrupt that “You don’t manage innovation, you let innovation flourish. Regulation over innovation is a really bad role for government.”
Texas Senator Ted Cruz penned an op-ed calling Net Neutrality “one of the biggest regulatory threats to the Internet” and likened it (unfavorably) to the Affordable Care Act.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul told the Huffington Post that regulating the Internet is “the wrong way to go.” He outright denied there was anything wrong with the way the Internet works today, telling a TechCrunch audience the following: “…without any regulation for 20 years on the internet, with all the fear that there might be some bulk pricing, I think there’s very little evidence that it exists today.”
Florida Senator Marco Rubio has said that the FCC’s Net Neutrality ruling “… will give federal bureaucrats a foot in the door to start unseating market forces. And never once has the government gotten a foot in the door of any industry and been satisfied to stop pushing its way in.”
Former Secretary of State, New York Senator and First Lady Hillary Clinton gave an impressively nuanced point of view on Net Neutrality. In conversation with Re/Code’s Kara Swisher in February, Clinton said that she supports the decision to regulate the Internet under Title II but she acknowledged that it is not the ideal solution.
“It’s a foot in the door,” said Clinton. “It’s a value statement but it’s not the end of the discussion.”
Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley has been staunchly in favor of a Title II approach to Net Neutrality. He encouraged supporters to write to the FCC in support of reclassification and wrote an op-ed in The Hill, stating that, “I agree with President Obama’s Net Neutrality approach. We shouldn’t have gatekeepers picking winners and losers online.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, although an Independent, swings to the left so we’ll note his view here. Sanders released a statement after the open Internet order was passed saying it is “a victory for consumers and entrepreneurs.”
Looking to 2016, what does this mean?
Each candidate has a different perspective on what’s the right approach to protecting and nurturing the Internet, but only one will end up having the final say after the elections.
Bush, Fiorina, Cruz, Paul and Rubio would all like to take Title II to the woodshed. O’Malley and Sanders are staunchly in favor of maintaining the current status quo. Clinton seems to offer the best chance of striking the right balance between the baseline virtues of Net Neutrality and the rigidity of Title II, but there’s no guarantee that she will win, and no guarantee that this issue will be near the top of her to-do list if she does take the White House.
So where does this leave our Internet and its future?
Short answer? It leaves it in a state of continued uncertainty.
Recently, a number of groups and individuals have filed lawsuits against the FCC. These cases will be considered by the courts and decided in due time. But litigation will provide certainty for only a select group, instead of everyone.
To ensure that the Internet truly remains free and open, the American people have to turn to the only body that can end the uncertainty: Congress. By crafting bipartisan legislation that enshrines into law the solid ideas behind the FCC’s decision, Congress can protect the ideals of Net Neutrality and prevent blocking, throttling, and prioritization. Legislation would ensure that Net Neutrality isn’t an all or nothing cause that comes and goes every time there’s a new leader of the free world.
Congress can do this. Without legislation, the power to keep the Internet free and open rests with the next president (and his or her choice to run the FCC) or with a court decision that could blow the whole thing to smithereens. Without legislation, there’s the very serious risk that the future of the Internet will hang on a high-stakes game of musical chairs every four years.
Mike Montgomery is executive director of CALinnovates, a bipartisan technology advocacy coalition whose members include companies that have participated in the Net Neutrality debate. This piece does not endorse any party or candidate.