Internet Cop: President Obama's Top Man at the Federal Communications Commission Tries to Regulate the Net

By Suderman, Peter | Reason, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Internet Cop: President Obama's Top Man at the Federal Communications Commission Tries to Regulate the Net


Suderman, Peter, Reason


ROBERT McDOWELL becomes effusive when talking about the World Wide Web. "The beauty of the Internet is that it has been somewhat lawless," says the Republican, one of five appointees who run the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The lack of government mandates, McDowell says, has made the Net "the greatest deregulatory success story of all time," a "sort of libertarian heaven."

Is that heaven about to crash down to earth? Julius Genachowski, the man hand-picked by President Barack Obama to chair the FCC, insists not. "I've been clear repeatedly that we're not going to regulate the Internet," he told The Wall Street Journal in February 2010. But his actions suggest otherwise. Since taking office in June 2009, Genachowski, a tech entrepreneur and former FCC counsel, has led the commission on an unprecedented quest for power over the Web's network infrastructure, sparking a thunderous, confusing lobbying battle over who gets to control the Net.

"If the government starts to get involved with regulation of Internet network management," McDowell warns, "you'll start to see the politicization of decisions in that realm." At this point, there's no if about it: From his first major speech to a hurried and secretive rulemaking procedure in the final weeks of 2010, Genachowski has made it his mission to plant the seeds of government control within the core of the Internet--all under the guise of "preserving Internet freedom."

They Call It Net Neutrality

Like so many political slogans, Internet freedom sounds great. But what does it mean in practice? For Genachowski and the rest of the Obama administration, "Internet freedom" is a feel-good euphemism for the techie idea known as "net neutrality."

At its most basic, net neutrality is the belief that all bits and bytes that travel over the Internet should be treated equally: no discrimination, no paid prioritization, just first-come-first-served access for everyone all the time. As an egalitarian approach to the Web, it is more a pre-technical philosophy than a clear guide to managing network infrastructure. The applied theory of net neutrality is that routers--the traffic management devices that send packets of information from one computer or server to the next--should treat each piece of information like every other piece, be it an email message, a video, a game, or 3D porn. This is not a bad idea; indeed, it is largely how the Internet works already. But net neutrality advocates warn that without federal intervention, corporate giants won't leave it this way for long; they will begin setting up pricey, priority-traffic toll roads across the Web.

The neutrality concept is a direct descendant of "common carrier" regulation of phone companies. When wire-based phone networks ruled the earth, they were treated as public utilities. The feds forced them to share their infrastructure with their competitors at regulated rates, a restriction on their property rights that was enforced under the pleasant-sounding banner of "equal access."

It didn't take long for politicians to start fretting about equal access on the Web. In a 1994 speech, Vice President AI Gore pondered this loaded question: "How can government ensure that the [emerging Internet] will permit everyone to be able to compete with everyone else for the opportunity to provide any service to all willing customers? Next, how can we ensure that this new marketplace reaches the entire nation?" Access, opportunity, competition--how would these goals ever be achieved without the government's involvement?

Answer: easily. Internet access exploded throughout the late 1990s and the following decade--no federal broadband regulation required. By 1999 more than 30 million people could dial in from their homes. The Net's success in the absence of regulation was so apparent that even Democratic bureaucrats preached the gospel of nonintervention: In 1999 FCC Chairman William Kennard declared in a speech that "if we've learned anything about the Internet in government over the last 15 years, it's that it thrived quite nicely without the intervention of government. …

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