"[The old rules] left the giants of the internet totally unregulated, even though they have the power to block, throttle and give away customer data without transparency. This 'special' treatment threatened the internet more than anything else. ... [T]he internet is an ecosystem where every player has to play by the same set of rules. Everyone is special on the internet." –Kim Keenan, Internet Innovation Alliance
Today, June 11, the Federal Communications Commission’s order on “Restoring Internet Freedom” goes into effect. If you are reading this online, either through a wired connection or perhaps on a tablet or phone, you already know the most important thing about it: The internet is still here, and it’s not broken.
Not only does the internet still work, it’s getting better. While investment slowed during the period when the previous FCC’s old Title II rules were in place (2015-2017), we have seen announcements of higher capital spending in broadband and investments focused on deployment of advanced technology since the current FCC’s decision to “restore the longstanding, bipartisan light-touch regulatory framework that has fostered rapid Internet growth, openness, and freedom for nearly 20 years.” The race to 5G technology will only push this further, with expected IT infrastructure investments of $326 billion by 2025 and one estimate of $500 billion in capital expenditures in the mobile sector alone.
Equally important, since the FCC’s announcement there have been no notable instances of customers alleging blocking of their legitimate access to online content, nor of throttling consumer speeds on the internet. A significant related development is that the FCC’s decision also restored exclusive authority over consumer protection online to the Federal Trade Commission, the expert agency with over 100 years of experience in this area. The internet will continue to thrive.
The headlines concerning the privacy of consumers’ data on the internet are not a result of the new rules – in fact, the big story here in recent months concerns a company to whom the old rules did not even apply. This highlights a key problem with the previous FCC’s rules; they did not pertain to every internet-related company but instead singled out one set of companies (ironically, the group that has the least control over consumers’ data) for harsher treatment. They left the giants of the internet totally unregulated, even though they have the power to block, throttle, and give away customer data without transparency. This “special” treatment threatened the internet more than anything else. Change means that we have to understand that the internet is an ecosystem where every player has to play by the same set of rules. Everyone is special on the internet.
Gains in investment are hugely important, not just for telecom but for the economy overall. As noted telecom and internet analyst Mary Meeker recently noted, tech companies account for a quarter of U.S. market capitalization, with a correspondingly important role in total U.S. corporate capital spending. So policies that benefit this sector have an immediate positive effect on the economy as a whole.
Meeker’s analysis also includes a very helpful way to think about all this. She distills complicated data down to a simple but powerful equation: “Innovation + Competition = Driving Product Improvements/Usefulness/Usage.”
This is great shorthand for what I and others have long argued: investment is key to innovation. Our markets are competitive, with consumers having many choices as to how they access broadband and content on the internet. Where innovation and competition exist, regulations, such as the ones that take effect today, will encourage product improvement, leading to greater usefulness and even more usage of the internet. This is what the FCC meant by “restoring internet freedom.” We do not need, and have not needed, burdensome monopoly regulation applying only to some companies while letting others – including those who are essentially exercising monopoly power – to go unregulated. Access to the internet is highly competitive, so lighter regulation will promote investment in broadband internet as these companies compete to gain users, knowing that these users will use the internet more frequently because of the improvements that competition has brought. It is a virtuous cycle – if we get the policies right. The FCC has returned broadband regulation to light-touch rules that work.
As internet companies become a more powerful force in national life, they should expect additional scrutiny from regulators and from internet users themselves. No matter the players and their perspectives, it is important to get the policies right here for betterment of the whole ecosystem. At the end of the day, we need a federal law with one set of clear rules that apply to everyone in the internet ecosystem: no blocking or throttling of legitimate online content or unfair discrimination against content. We also need robust privacy protections that apply to all companies equally, so that consumers have one set of privacy protections everywhere on the internet and no matter how they access the internet.
This is the best way forward, and it would also resolve the debate over “net neutrality” once and for all. In the meantime, look upwards – the sky has not fallen and the internet remains intact.
Kim Keenan is co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) and executive vice president for marketing and research at Odyssey Media. She formerly served as the president and CEO of the Multicultural Media, Telecom & Internet Council (MMTC).