Is the FCC killing the internet? Iowans watching closely

The net neutrality debate has been oversimplified by advocates on both sides

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Federal regulators are looking to reverse net neutrality, and people are taking notice.

Iowans’ Google searches about net neutrality surged to an all-time high last month, and dozens of Iowa users are using related hashtags on Twitter. The advocacy group Fight for the Future, which backs the Obama-era internet regulations, boldly warns, “The FCC is trying to kill the Internet again. This time, it’s even worse.”

That might make a good tagline for another Terminator sequel, but it’s poor public policy discourse. Nobody is trying to kill the internet.

Regulating the internet is a vital public policy question, but the technical and legal complexities don’t mix well with our hasty politics and clickbait media environment.

Advocates on both sides sometimes oversimplify what net neutrality even means. They say they support free speech, and throw around vague phrases like “free and open.” The actual impacts of the policy are clearly secondary to the catchphrases.

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission published a 400-page declaratory ruling, which made internet service providers subject to the federal government’s Title II regulations. Title II is 100-page portion of the Communications Act of 1934, updated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which were designed to rein in telephone monopolies.

Supporters of the net neutrality movement claim they’re protecting Americans from internet providers’ bad behavior. Without the rules, advocates warn corporations will block or slow some content, while prioritizing other traffic.

Those concerns are largely imaginary, but in other cases, net neutrality’s regulatory principles actively hurt consumers. The regulations have slowed the pace of infrastructure improvements, and they make it difficult for companies to offer free information and media on mobile networks.

I discussed the issue recently with Nicholas Johnson, an Iowa City legal scholar who served on the FCC and as an advisor to the Carter White House. He expects corporations will eventually abuse the system, as long as the opportunity exists.

“In every industry I’ve ever dealt with, it’s a problem everywhere. It’s the most natural thing in the world. If you’ve got power to take advantage, you will,” Johnson said

Johnson also pointed out the internet is different than other marketplaces, so it may require heavier regulation. New firms can’t easily or quickly enter the market to compete, which limits consumer choice.

“If you want to open up a grocery store, you just open up the grocery store and that may result in other grocery stores not doing as well or it may result in you’re not making it, but all you have to do is put up the brick and mortar and see if you can sell,” Johnson told me.

I recognize net neutrality advocates have some reasonable concerns. I’m not so naive to think the telecom giants are corporate angels, but I’m also skeptical that archaic federal regulations will achieve their stated goals.

Even if the goals of net neutrality are desirable, it’s not clear the FCC’s outdated rules are the best way to achieve them. To the contrary, the regulations could ignite a series of unintended consequences which make the internet less competitive.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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