Hands off tomorrow's Internet

By Meredith Attwell Baker
Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On Tuesday, in a party-line vote, the three Democratic commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will adopt "net neutrality" rules.

The rules will give government, for the first time, a substantive role in how the Internet will be operated and managed, how broadband services will be priced and structured, and potentially how broadband networks will be financed. By replacing market forces and technological solutions with bureaucratic oversight, we may see an Internet future not quite as bright as we need, with less investment, less innovation and more congestion.

Discouragingly, the FCC is intervening to regulate the Internet because it wants to, not because it needs to. Preserving the openness and freedom of the Internet is non-negotiable; it is a bedrock principle shared by all in the Internet economy. No government action is necessary to preserve it. Acting only on speculative concerns about network operators and contrary to a decade of industry practice, the FCC is moving forward aggressively without real evidence of systemic competitive harms to cure, markets to fix or consumers to help.

Given these conditions, I do not believe it is appropriate for unelected FCC officials to make a decision with such potential long-term consequences for the Internet economy, for high-paying jobs and for the nation's global competitiveness without explicit direction from Congress.

One of my principal misgivings about the FCC's approach is that it fails to confront in a forthright manner the substantial risk that this action may distort the future of the Internet. The FCC is focused on how broadband networks are managed and operated today. I am worried about the Internet of tomorrow.

The Internet remains a very new technology and economy. We are at the beginning of a period of dramatic technological change. As we increasingly rely upon the Internet for nearly everything we do, the exploding demands of consumers and businesses are challenging innovators and investors to respond with new technologies, products and services. A great amount of experimentation continues with business models, business relationships, customer usage patterns and expectations. By locking in today's Internet, the FCC may inhibit the ability of networks to freely innovate and experiment, to seek out the differentiation that breeds opportunity and consumer choice. The risk of government censure will unmistakably chill new developments, including those developments that would be pro-consumer and pro-competition.

All of this can have real consequences. Efforts to ensure that all Americans have access to broadband service would be put at risk. Efforts to get the third of American households that do not subscribe to online broadband service to do so will be challenged. Affordability concerns will be magnified by forcing more of the network investment cost onto consumers. And consumers and entrepreneurs will be affected if network upgrades and improvements are delayed or forgone, as will their ability to create or use the next great application or service.

I keep returning to what should be a threshold question: Why does the FCC plan to intervene in a rushed manner, days before the year's end, in the one sector of the economy that is working so well to create consumer choice, jobs and entrepreneurial opportunity? Until we can answer that, I hope my colleagues will stand down and allow Congress to take the lead on these issues. The Internet will be open on Wednesday with or without our action; we have the time to do it right.

The writer, a Republican, is an FCC commissioner.

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