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Over the past few decades, a war has been raging over a seemingly minor regulatory distinction. The debate surrounding “net neutrality” has been hotly contested, with many on the left demanding so-called “network equality” while few have taken the time to really understand the nuts and bolts of internet regulation and its externalities. Now that the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has remanded the Trump administration’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order to the Federal Communications Commission for revision, it is more important than ever to dispel the myths that surround this issue.
Columbia Law professor Tim Wu’s 2003 paper first outlining the regulatory regime that he termed “network neutrality” understandably made waves among those who study the intersection of public policy and technology. But when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama made Wu’s principles part of his platform, what had been a theoretical concept suddenly became real regulation.
Over the course of his two terms, President Obama attempted to pass the Open Internet Order that would establish net neutrality twice. Among other things, the rule reclassified telecommunications services as Title II public utilities under the Communications Act of 1934, increasing the government regulatory control of the industry. The first time, the bulk of the rule was overturned on constitutional grounds. The second, in 2015, was later overturned by the passage of the Trump administration’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order in 2017.
The regulatory structure created under the Open Internet Order was stifling for internet service providers (ISPs) and, by proxy, severely hampered the growth and innovation of the internet industry as a whole. In short, this was just another instance of individuals regulating things that they don’t understand. It was the light regulatory touch that spawned the birth of the internet and the radical progress that came with it. The Open Internet Order ran entirely counter to that principle, and businesses suffered because of it. Not only were large corporations hampered by this regulatory scheme, but the new regulatory regime also created barriers to entry for small internet startups, further entrenching the tech goliaths that leftists love to criticize.
Fortunately, the Obama-era Open Internet Order wasn’t built to last, and cooler heads prevailed in the long run. With the ascendance of Ajit Pai to the Chairmanship of the FCC, the government's war on the internet was swiftly retracted. As one of his first major acts, Chairman Pai steered the Restoring Internet Freedom Order through the Commission in 2017. The new rule repealed the anti-throttling rules of the Obama era and reclassified telecommunications services as Title I services, applying a “light-touch” regulatory framework to internet services.
When we dissociate the facts and logic of the net neutrality debate from the emotion and fear-mongering, it’s fairly clear that the internet thrives under a light-touch regulatory scheme. Since the passage of the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, internet speeds have gone up and access to broadband has been expanded throughout the country. Furthermore, there has never been an instance in which any individual or company has participated in any of the horrible activities that leftists pundits warned of. On the contrary, platforms and ISPs are being more transparent than ever before.
Restoring Internet Freedom presents the case for the internet to be treated with a light-touch regulatory framework. This issue brief explains why net neutrality, an obsession of many on the left, is not the glorious system pundits would have you believe. When it comes down to it, the emphasis on “data equality” results in lower quality services for everyone. If we wish to continue moving forward, we should learn from the past, and support the internet rather than burden it with regulation.