Congressman Griffith’s Newsletter 12.15.17

Internet Freedom: The recent stir about the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) repeal of “net neutrality” reminds me of The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy and friends worry about what lies in the enchanted forest. Rather than lions and tigers and bears, however, “net neutrality” supporters incant about the threat posed by “Google and Facebook and Twitter, oh my!”

The Internet is famous for its free, open nature. If the federal government announced that it planned to impose extensive controls on the Internet, there would be an uproar.

Yet that is exactly what the Obama Administration’s FCC set out to do in 2015.

Supporters of “net neutrality” say it is vital to a free and open Internet, but the Internet as we know it came about before “net neutrality.” The Web thrived when an open market and a light government touch empowered inventors and entrepreneurs. This environment allowed small enterprises to become giants. Companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter are household names now, but began with just a few people and ideas.

“Net neutrality” will strangle similar successes before they occur. The core of the policy is reclassifying the Internet as a utility under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. The FCC invoked Title II in 2015, taking legislation that was aimed at entities like the Ma Bell telephone monopoly and applying it to the Digital Age. Supporters of the FCC’s decision raised the specter of Internet service providers (ISPs) blocking websites or charging for access to content if their rules were not implemented, but ISPs weren’t engaging in this practice before the FCC’s new “net neutrality” rules of 2015.

According to the website BroadbandNow, the United States has 2,682 ISPs. If an ISP engages in the practices that “net neutrality” supposedly shields consumers from now, customers can choose another ISP. If these practices become widespread, another ISP can enter the market to serve dissatisfied consumers. Time and again, the free market has shown itself to be far more agile in meeting consumers’ needs than the government. It was doing so before “net neutrality.”

The bad things “net neutrality” was supposed to address were not happening, but the drawbacks it imposes on today’s Internet are real. Innovation, investment, and expansion have suffered. From 2014 to 2016, spanning the time net neutrality went from consideration to implementation, wireless capital investment declined by $6.8 billion, or about 20%. It shrank even as traffic grew. Companies find themselves spending more on compliance with the FCC’s rules and less on their actual business. They are reluctant to make long-term decisions about investment because they don’t know what rules the FCC will establish under Title II. The companies best positioned to survive in this era are the big companies that currently dominate the market. Start-ups will be grounded before they ever take off. “Net neutrality” freezes in place the status quo.

This development is bad news for rural areas like much of Southwest Virginia. More money for investment should expand broadband networks into areas they haven’t yet touched, but “net neutrality” has had a chilling effect. Large companies aren’t going to profit much from rural expansion, so they won’t do it. Preserving the current rules leaves them dominant, but deters the innovators who are looking to change the world and seek out a little profit wherever it can be found.

When ATT’s Bell telephone monopoly was broken up in the 1980s, many people feared the disruption the breakup would cause. There was indeed disruption: an explosion of new technology and the arrival of cell phones to the mass market. Ending “net neutrality” should deliver this type of disruption. The type that delivers choice and value to consumers.

If the fears being fanned by the industry giants of today come true, Congress has the responsibility to address them, not unelected bureaucrats. As an example, my colleague on the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, has already been working on such a bill.

The FCC has pointed out that the end of “net neutrality” leaves the Federal Trade Commission the power to break up any company with a monopolistic hold on the industry, as it did with Ma Bell.

Far from “the end of the Internet as we know it,” the demise of “net neutrality,” the return to the light touch of government, and the freedom to innovate have the potential to take the Internet to heights not yet imagined by you or me. But in a garage or a basement somewhere in the United States, young minds are at work who have already imagined the future, and now they have the freedom to make it so.

Feel free to contact my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov.