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Today, executives of big tech platforms such as Facebook and Twitter faced heated questioning from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. Democrats are upset with these companies over allegations the platforms are being abused to spread misinformation. Republicans are accusing these platforms of censoring certain speech. Unfortunately, while their complaints differ, both sides seem to be inching toward some sort of new regulatory scheme for this industry. This is to be expected from Democrats, but Republicans ought to know better. If they need some inspiration, they ought to look to what is happening at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), particularly what Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr announced just yesterday.
Commissioner Carr, delivering remarks on the Senate floor of the Indiana Statehouse, announced that the FCC will soon vote on a proposal to help facilitate the deployment of Fifth Generation wireless data networks. Fifth Generation, or 5G networks promise to deliver staggering internet speeds to wireless devices. This does not just mean faster download speeds for your music and videos. It means that a whole host of theoretical and not-yet imagined technologies will be possible in what is known as the “internet-of-things.” Computer-enabled machines will be able to communicate with one-another in near real-time. Think driverless cars and you’ll just be scratching the surface of 5G’s potential to revolutionize the economy.
Given this potential, 5G has attracted the attention of political leaders. President Trump’s National Security Council proposed nationalizing the industry. They’re right to recognize the importance of 5G, but 5G is all about speed and efficiency and government notoriously is not. This is precisely why Commissioner Carr’s plan is the right approach.
Instead of trying to micromanage the sector like a fat jockey on a young horse, Commissioner Carr’s plan removes the weight of government. It allows for the natural forces of competition to not only drive the development of 5G but simultaneously ensure the industry’s accountability to consumers above all else. To summarize, the plan would limit the ability of state and local governments to impede the deployment of 5G infrastructure through unreasonable taxes, fees, and other regulations. It also grants companies a high degree of certainty by holding governments to what is known as a regulatory “shot clock.” Governments would be forced to act on permit applications within a reasonable amount time as opposed to government time—anyone who has been to the DMV or waited for a Washington, DC Metro train knows there’s a difference.
Unfortunately, such reforms are desperately needed. While it is usually either the maze or morass natural to government harming competition, there are many examples of government at all levels and across industries using regulatory power to extract huge rents from companies and block competing firms from entering certain markets. This is all too prevalent in the telecommunications industry. Compounding this problem is the fact that when consumers suffer in the absence of this competition, governments leap at the opportunity to impose even more stifling regulations in the name of consumer protection.
The calls for so-called “net neutrality” regulations are the perfect example of the above scenario. Governments have impeded the ability of wired-broadband internet providers to deploy their networks through outsized fees and other regulatory hurdles, leaving many Americans with few internet service provider choices. This has led many Americans to believe that internet service should be treated like a public utility. Yet that level of regulation has proven to even further deter companies from making the necessary investments in expanding their networks and competing with one-another.
Thankfully, Commissioner Carr’s plan, expected to be adopted by the full FCC, seeks to head all of this off at the pass when it comes to 5G. Yet, the principles contained within his plan ought not be limited to new technologies. Wired-broadband internet service providers, cable companies, broadcasters, indeed every increasingly intertwined part of the telecommunications sector should be subject to similar rules that facilitate investment, competition, and deployment of new technologies of their own.
Getting government out of the way of competitive market forces should always be the first impulse of conservatives. This brings us back to today’s hearings on Capitol Hill regarding online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others. Regardless of the merit to either sides’ accusations, Congressional Republicans ought to take a page from the FCC’s playbook. Instead of contemplating new regulations that will only blunt the competitive forces these companies face, they ought to ask what allowed these tech giants to grow and thrive in the first place and ensure that government is doing nothing to stop the next ones.