The debate over net neutrality seems to have died down a bit. Most stakeholders are in agreement on the core principles of an open internet, including internet content providers (like Netflix and Youtube) and internet service providers (ISPs) who deliver that content to consumers.
In an attempt to clear up some of the confusion over the issue, here’s what the stakeholders generally agree on when it comes to net neutrality: ISPs should not prioritize internet content, data, or networks. That means that all of these things should be treated the same online. This is what most people mean when they use the term net neutrality — and it is important to underscore that this concept is not controversial anymore.
However, the path to ensuring net neutrality is still controversial. The current approach, enacted two years ago by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the Obama Administration, is a heavy-handed, top-down approach that has proven problematic for many stakeholders. Rather than formulate rules specific to the unique circumstances of the internet, the FCC simply shoehorned regulation of it into an existing set of rules originally designed for the Ma Bell telephone era. It has not been a good fit.
Those old telephone rules place a heavy burden on ISPs, requiring them to jump through hoops and navigate red tape, creating unnecessary administrative costs. Predictably, these additional regulations also resulted in a decline in broadband investment throughout the country. At a time when we should be doing everything possible to improve access, it’s as if we have tied one hand behind our collective backs.
The current FCC is in the process of repealing these regulations in order to restore broadband investment back to its previous upward trajectory. But the fact that the they are replacing these rules after only two years of existence points to a further problem with this whole situation. In the last decade, we have seen multiple rounds of rules from the FCC, and much accompanying litigation over those rules. How the federal government approaches the FCC seems to change with each new presidential administration, creating uncertainty for businesses and consumers alike.
The internet is too important to our society and economy to allow this type of regulatory whack-a-mole to continue. It is time for Congress to step in and enact a law to guide internet regulation. Through the legislative process, Congress can craft a solution that protect net neutrality and at the same time prevent the type of unintended consequences that we are currently experiencing.
Most people think of a light-touch approach when it comes to internet regulation. After all, a limited amount of intervention by government in the internet is what many credit to the technology explosion we have experienced in the last two decades. That approach has served us well heretofore, and it is time we returned to it.
Rep. Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls, represents House District 25 in the Montana Legislature. He serves on the House Business & Labor Committee.