The Progressive Case Against Overregulation

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The growth of “broadband” — Internet that runs fast enough to power our economic and social needs — has been the subject of some debate. In a recent paper, “A Progressive Broadband Policy Agenda”, Everett Erlich, former undersecretary of commerce for economic affairs in the Clinton Administration and current Progressive Policy Insitute fellow, says those who want more government structure on the Internet risk the very thing they want to avoid — slowing its development and diverting attention from more important policy goals. An edited excerpt from Ehrlich’s paper follows.

The weight of evidence suggests the activists’ agenda leads progressives to a dead end. It addresses a problem that doesn’t exist — the absence of competition in broadband — and compromises another and more important objective — investment in broadband leading to ubiquitous access. A progressive broadband agenda is based on five key pillars:

• Extending the reach of high-speed Internet so that every American has access to it, whether through wired or wireless means as economics dictate;

• Creating an active market for spectrum;

• Using broadband to advance — if not revolutionize — key non-market sectors of the economy, particularly education, health care, environmental protection and government, including making sure every family with a child in K-12 education has access to a computer;

• Protecting personal privacy in broadband-based interactions; and

• Defining the role of the FCC as a catalyst, honest broker and market enabler, rather than as a regulatory implementer.

The fact that the Internet has become a driving force in shaping daily life doesn’t mean that it can’t be governed primarily by market forces. In fact, those forces have already delivered a competitive, innovative and rapidly disseminating broadband network.

Net neutrality denies this reality — it is based on the assertion that the provision of high-speed connectivity is being throttled by firms with undue market power, despite any evidence to support that contention. Moreover, it does nothing to address the leading obstacles to a ubiquitous broadband Internet, indifference and the absence of computers in the home. Perhaps worse, it is a policy that would reduce competition and innovation rather than improve those outcomes.

There is a more appropriate policy agenda for progressives. It means finishing the job of creating a truly national high-speed network; using the remarkable capabilities of broadband to improve education, health care, government, and other social sectors; creating the terms on which more connectivity can be created (for example, liberating spectrum); and protecting the individual right to privacy using both legal means and market forces. That agenda would achieve important progressive goals in a way that “neutrality” and other regulatory forays cannot and will not.