Monday, October 19, 2009

No "Public Option" for the Internet

Whether or not there will be some new form of "public option" government-run or managed health provider as part of health care reform remains up in the air. But what ought not to be up in the air is the notion that the nation needs some new form of "public option" government-run or managed Internet. In a largely deregulatory competitive environment, the nation has made too much progress in the past several years in building out high-speed broadband Internet networks to now adopt an intrusive Internet regulatory regime that could threaten further advances.

The FCC is poised to consider initiating a new rulemaking this Thursday that, in one form or another, would impose new net neutrality mandates. I understand that any new regulations adopted, in theory, may be more or less intrusive. Indeed, I appreciate that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski declared in his Brookings Institution speech that the FCC "will do as much as we need to do, and no more, to ensure that the Internet remains an unfettered platform for competition, creativity, and entrepreneurial activity."

With respect, this statement of professed regulatory modesty – to get the regulation "just right" on an ongoing basis – is inconsistent with normal bureaucratic imperatives at work once a prescriptive regulation is adopted. The notion that the Commission will get the Internet regulation just right on an ongoing basis indicates a regulatory immodesty inappropriate in such a technologically dynamic market segment.

Now, Chairman Genachowski may, in his own mind, lean toward a less intrusive public option for net neutrality regulation than other advocates. But the most rabid net neutrality supporters have no such leanings. They will continue to press, before and after the adoption of new regulations, for the most rigidly intrusive regime. Indeed, as I pointed out back in August, Robert McChesney, a founder and board member of the Free Press organization, the staunchest net neutrality proponent, recently said the following in an interview with "The Bullet," a publication of the Socialist Project: "What we want to have in the U.S. and in every society is an Internet that is not private property, but a public utility. We want an Internet where you don't have to have a password and that you don't pay a penny to use. It is your right to use the Internet."

Professor McChesney's extreme vision of the public option for the Internet hopefully is not shared by Chairman Genachowski or a Commission majority. But the real point is this: Once the FCC bans all form of "discrimination" by Internet providers, as it apparently proposes to do, it will have taken a significant step in the direction of converting the Internet into McChesney's public utility. The non-discrimination ban at the heart of net neutrality regulation is the same non-discrimination prohibition that is at the core of public utility regulation.

In the last week or so, there has developed a broad array of opposition to the adoption of net neutrality regulation. The opposition comes from unions (CWA and IBEW), the business community (the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), Internet equipment and services suppliers like Cisco, and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle (House Democrats and Republicans, and Senate Republicans).

A perusal of these letters will reveal, at bottom, this fundamental commonality:

· At present, there is little credible evidence that there is any "market failure" problem or existence of abusive consumer practices for which prescriptive government regulation is warranted. The three or four claimed examples of such potential abuses were all addressed absent prescriptive net neutrality regulations. Note that in the quote above, Chairman Genachowski says he wants "to ensure that the Internet remains an unfettered platform for competition." He doesn't say it is not now one.

· Absent a market failure and evidence of marketplace abuses that threaten consumer welfare, preemptive government regulation is likely to stifle incentives for continued investment in broadband networks and innovation in the entire Internet ecosystem.

· Unlike other segments of the economy, even in difficult economic times, just in the last two years the broadband providers have invested over $200 billion of private capital in building out and enhancing their broadband networks, without seeking government guarantees of bailouts.
As the newly-constituted FCC under Chairman Genachowski nears its rulemaking decision, it should adopt a considerably more modest mind-set, one that takes account of both the agency's own past history of regulatory over-reaching and an appreciation of the changing dynamics of today's digital environment.

What the FCC needs at this point, frankly, despite its oft-repeated mantra, echoed by industry, is not more and more data. Unless the agency is going to be making decisions, ordinarily reserved for the private sector, concerning the amount and timing of capital investment, the pace of new innovations and technological roll-outs, projected consumer demand for new services and applications, and the like, it already has more than enough data (which, by the way, becomes outdated very quickly in a dynamic market) to know that there is no need to adopt new Internet regulations.

Until there is a demonstrated market failure, the FCC would be well-served to have uppermost in mind certain regulatory principles and approaches -- cost-benefit analysis, the precautionary principle, the law of unintended consequences, and the laws of the bureaucratic imperative and the slippery slope – all of which should dictate a high degree of regulatory modesty.