A Tech Perspective: Title II Isn't the Answer for Internet

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On Thursday, Feb. 26, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote on its draft proposal to reclassify Internet service in the United States as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. In the name of “net neutrality,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says this move is necessary to ensure a free and open Internet. Imposing 80-year-old rules on the most sophisticated communications system in human history will ensure that the Internet is neither free nor open. It would also impose tax burdens on companies and consumers.

There are currently no major issues with how Internet Service Providers offer broadband service, nor is there any groundswell of dissatisfaction from the millions of Americans who are generally able to consume as much bandwidth as they desire. While the FCC claims that invoking Title II is necessary to avoid throttling and paid prioritization, these are not widespread practices that ISPs have unilaterally claimed they would do.

While the Title II debate appears on the surface to have broken down on political and ideological lines, this is decidedly not the case. Just last week the Progressive Policy Institute, a left-leaning organization, released a survey in which nearly 75 percent of respondents had no idea what the term “net neutrality” actually meant. Further, nearly 80 percent believe that the FCC needs to be more transparent in how it approaches its Title II proposal. Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai lamented that none of the 332-page proposal will be made public until after the commission has taken its vote.

When major sweeping policy change is done hastily and without appropriate thought, these decisions can lead to massive unintended consequences. In a few days the FCC will announce its rules: Will the commissioners only use a piece of Title II to ensure Internet freedom, as Chairman Wheeler has claimed, or will they enact the totality of Title II, leading to a government regulated Internet?

Why would we decide to impose rules that will surely slow progress when we have experienced the greatest technological leaps forward since the Industrial Revolution and the furthest reach of information since the Gutenberg Bible?

With Title II we could face a world where major telecommunications providers will spend millions on attorney’s fees and years in court rather than investing more in networks and infrastructure upgrades. This cascade of uncertainty will flow from Wall Street to Silicon Valley while venture capital remains on the sidelines waiting out a ruling that will ultimately come from the Supreme Court. The entrepreneur who has created the next Facebook or Uber in their apartment will go looking for funding with little hope, always wondering what might have been.

With the stakes this high Congress must act. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is circulating legislative language that provides the consumer protection found in the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order but does not enforce the burdens found in Title II. With the FCC’s vote expected this week it is important that Congress move swiftly to prevent the power grab by the government over the Internet. Every day that Congress waits threatens to fundamentally and radically derail the most transformative technology we’ve seen in a century.

Chris Abrams is the former director of engineering at Conde Nast and the current CTO of Lincoln Labs, a liberty-oriented technology thought leadership group.

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