[Opinion]: An Elitist Take on Net Neutrality
It looks as though the Los Angeles Times thinks that regulating the internet as a public utility under the disguise of net neutrality—a policy being pushed by digital elites in Washington and by tech giants in Silicon Valley—is a more important goal than connecting more Americans to the internet by improving broadband service for people in underserved communities.
In a recent editorial, the paper took a dim view of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to roll back rules the agency championed during the Obama administration that would dictate how internet service providers, such as AT&T or Comcast, treat content. The paper declared the partisan pendulum swings inherent with regulatory policy must end. Congress, not the FCC, needs to establish certainty. And the law the LA Times thinks Congress should pass should come down on the side of startups, one of which could be the next Google or Facebook. As for the people not poised to invent the future? Well, they’ll just have to wait.
“Better broadband connections in neglected rural America, poverty-stricken inner cities, and other underserved areas is a most worthy goal. But those connections shouldn’t come at the cost of net neutrality,” the paper opined.
That smacks of elitism. Economic and social marginalization of people in low-income and minority communities can be addressed only with investments in infrastructure needed to expand access to high-speed internet. Like it or not, the internet service providers will make the lion’s share of this needed investment. Imposing rules on how they can operate— as the Times would have Congress do—would mean less money for expanding broadband access. However, the newspaper is not concerned about this reality. So much for looking out for the little guy.
Net neutrality purists view the internet as a static public utility akin to the Ma Bell black rotary phone days—rules that will cement the market dominance of entrenched giants such as Facebook and Netflix and relegate innovators to the sidelines.
For the first quarter century of its existence, the internet was able to transform the way the world lives because policymakers knew better than to try to regulate, tax, and control what they did not completely understand. That incredibly successful policy framework was revered by the Obama administration, and it’s time to bring it back. The FCC must restore a light and nimble approach to regulation, which will best position internet companies to be innovative and nimble amid unforeseen changes in technology, consumer demands, and economic dynamics. The internet must always remain an organic force, subject to innovative disruptors, technological advances, and yes, market dynamics.
Chairman Pai grasps the need to unshackle access and innovation. While the LA Times derided him for having “never met a regulation he didn’t want to kill,” Pai is actually keenly aware of the power of regulations to kill. He is seeking an approach to internet regulation that accepts the fact the internet is a phenomenon of great complexity and rapid change. His efforts to rein in government meddling have been met with abusive, threatening, and largely computer-generated comments that net neutrality activists managed to flood the FCC’s website with this past spring.
Chairman Pai understands that connecting more Americans and closing the digital divide is a game changing opportunity. His Digital Empowerment Agenda seeks to improve rural connectivity and bring high-speed internet access to all Americans regardless of location. According to a recent study by Pew Research Center, only 55% of rural Americans use broadband at home. Chairman Pai is working to make every effort to close this divide and improve digital awareness outside of urban communities.
If we are lucky, the internet will always be more revolutionary than evolutionary. Even if the LA Times is ready to pick winners and losers, lawmakers and regulators in Washington should not be in the business of tipping the scales in favor of one group of companies over another and particularly not value tech giants over underserved communities.