The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this week embarked on its own Throwback Thursday with the release of its Open Internet Order. A 20-year bipartisan philosophy of regulatory restraint for the Internet changed when the FCC voted to transform the Internet from a model of global entrepreneurial innovation and advancement to a utility governed under a 19th-century regulatory model. The newly available rules usher in a new era of government involvement in the evolution of the Internet here in America and, perhaps more importantly, in countries around the planet.
Since the inception of the Internet, the U.S. government, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, has fought for regulatory restraint with regard to the Internet. I had the honor of serving as a policy adviser in the earliest days of the Clinton administration's development of Internet policy and I am confident that our forceful advocacy of limited government regulation of the Internet and related technologies helped foster the explosive growth of the Internet globally over the past two decades.
Proponents of utility-style regulation of the Internet believe that it is the only way to ensure net neutrality or an open Internet. They fear that, without government intervention, Internet service providers such as cable or telecommunications companies will block new entrants or competitors.
Unfortunately, most of today's proponents of a utility model for the Internet either have forgotten or never knew the genesis of the regulatory-restraint model that helped spur and continues to support Internet expansion.
They fail to realize that the global Internet was not inevitable. In the early days of the Internet, policymakers from developed countries fought for regulation of the Internet to protect incumbent national champion telecommunications providers, and developing economies saw the Internet as a means of America asserting economic and cultural hegemony or dominance. We had the task of explaining the importance of the then-emerging Internet and its potential for transforming economies and nations. We were addressing a skeptical world.
In 1993 when I joined the Clinton administration, only 2 million people were on the Internet. More than half the world's population had no access to a telephone. Half the planet had to walk an hour or more to the nearest telephone. Mobile telephony was in its infancy.
Telecommunications service generally was provided by state owned and controlled monopolies. Governments in developing countries saw telecommunications services as a source of foreign capital and political control.
Under the leadership of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, the U.S. argued forcefully, consistently and passionately for a transformation of telecommunications and technology policy. We suggested countries that wanted to enter the Internet age should:
– Seek to increase private investment
– Promote competition
– Provide open access to emerging networks
– Ensure universal service
– Create a flexible regulatory environment that minimized regulation and would foster competition.
Most nations, and particularly their regulators and policymakers, had no experience with the Internet in the early to mid-1990s. Those officials were used to a command-and-control, top-down utility form of regulation of communications networks. We argued that new networks required new thinking and a new approach, but not necessarily new or more rules. The unmistakable economic benefits of and consumer demand for the Internet helped us to persuade regulators not to regulate the Internet under then existing models.
By any measure, the Internet has transformed the world. We are witnesses to a two-decadelong experiment that has resulted in one of the greatest technological revolutions in history. We have seen an explosion in connectivity and the democratization of communications. Today, more than 3 billion people access the Internet. Internet-based telephony has reduced telephone costs dramatically. Globally, there are more than seven billion mobile telephone subscriptions. The cost of computing, telephony and Internet access has fallen dramatically.
In recent years, we have seen renewed efforts internationally to constrain the Internet, to increase government control of communications, to censor content and to impose institutional controls on the Internet. For 20 years, the U.S. could argue forcefully that we did not regulate the Internet in our country and that regulation of the Internet was not only not needed but bad policy. That has changed with the newly released rules soon heading to the Federal Register, and it will change the debate globally.
The U.S. has led the global debate for two decades on a nonpartisan basis. There is a strong interest among many for a nonpartisan congressional response to the FCC's action that will ensure an open Internet, but without the burden of utility-style regulation. The U.S. led a technological and regulatory revolution that changed the world. Surely we can find a way to ensure the Internet is open for the benefit of entrepreneurs, innovators and consumers without a return to the days of utility regulation.
Larry Irving is a former U.S. assistant secretary of commerce. He currently is the CEO of the Irving Group, a consulting firm that provides advisory services to technology and telecommunications companies. He also is founding co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group that includes telecommunications companies. This article first appeared on The Hill.
This article has been updated from the print version.