The Debate Between Two Visions for the Future of the Internet

Earlier this week the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held its legislative hearing on Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden's (R-OR) bill, H.J. Res. 37, to repeal the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) network neutrality rules and eliminate the FCC’s authority to protect consumers in the broadband market.  Immediately following the hearing the subcommittee held its markup, which is part of the voting process to move legislation to the floor of the House of Representatives (normally held weeks after the collection of facts and evidence from a hearing rather than minutes).  The witnesses consisted of a large Internet access provider (AT&T), small Internet access provider (RapidDSL and Wireless), economists (Shane Greenstein and Anna-Maria Kovacs), a consumer group (Free Press), and a small business innovator and entrepreneur (Robin Chase the former CEO of Zipcar).

Overall the hearing represented two visions for the future of the Internet, which will be defined by voting for or against H.J. Res. 37.  One vision is where public policy should define the Internet broadly and ensure that consumers create the Internet experience.  The other vision is relying on the broadband access industry to define the Internet for consumers.  The former CEO of Zipcar, a supporter for public policy and opponent of H.J. Res. 37, explained that “without consumer protections like Network Neutrality, these companies will define the Internet to mirror their preferred triple play – their telephone service, their video channels, and their notion of the ideal Internet experience.”  Supporting passage of H.J. Res. 37, the President of RapidDSL and Wireless explained his belief that he should be allowed to block lawful content stating that “it is appropriate because you block the source of the problem (consumers watching online video).  If the person that is violating your acceptable use policy is Netflix, you block Netflix.”

As the hearing progressed, opponents of an open Internet argued that repeal and elimination of FCC authority over enacting policies to protect an open Internet is necessary for investment and job creation.  However, such an assertion is speculative and numerous credible sources (Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Citibank, Wells Fargo, and Raymond James) have stated that the FCC's rules would not hurt investment.  Even the cable industry in a recent letter by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (representing cable operators serving more than 90 percent of the nation’s cable television households) stated that the FCC’s rules “should promote continued investment and job creation.”  In addition, AT&T’s Chairman Randall Stephenson has stated that his company can commit to “10-year and 15-year horizon investments” under the FCC rules.  Lastly, in her testimony the former CEO and founder of Zipcar stated that “repealing and eliminating the authority of the FCC to enact policies that preserve an open Internet will greatly harm our country’s ability to innovate, produce jobs, and remain globally competitive.”

As the hearing came to its conclusion, opponents of an open Internet appeared to take issue with a number of things related and unrelated to network neutrality. These things included complaining about web advertising on Google (which has nothing to do with broadband access to lawful content), claiming that H.J. Res. 37 would block reclassification of broadband under Title II of the Communication Act (Title II reclassification is not subject to H.J. Res. 37), and even going on a tirade against the Zipcar business model.  The facts have become irrelevant when Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) goes so far as to say the government created Zipcar through subsidies and supposedly $6.5 million in earmarks as part of his criticism (never mind the $1.16 billion in earmark requests he made for private and public entities just last year).  Unfortunately for the congressman, the reality is Zipcar was created completely with private capital and represents the model of innovation that leads to job creation (474 full time employees with $186 million in revenue in 2010) that the Republican party claims to protect.

When the hearing concluded and as the markup process began it became evident that the majority party was not interested in learning from what economists, innovators, the cable industry, and even AT&T stated to them during the hearing.  They had one vision for the Internet, an Internet where lawful content is blocked, and they wanted to see it become reality.  In fact, the Republicans are so opposed to the FCC having any role in the broadband market that they opposed amendments that would at least allow for basic protections should H.J. Res. 37 be enacted.  In total, the Republicans opposed amendments (they did not even allow for votes) that would allow the FCC to prevent content blocking (even the blocking of religious groups), to protect public safety, to investigate consumer privacy violations, to require transparency in network management (a position supported by the entire industry), and even allowing the FCC to regulate child pornography.   That is about as hands-off an approach as one can possibly be in regards to the broadband market.

Now that the subcommittee markup has concluded, the full Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to vote the legislation (likely along partisan lines again) this coming Monday, with consideration on the floor of the House of Representatives to follow shortly afterwards.  I encourage you to call your Member of Congress to tell them that you do not want the Republican vision for the Internet, that you want consumers to determine the Internet experience, that you want the job creation potential of the Internet to be protected, and that they should oppose H.J. Res. 37.

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