The Internet has no borders. Or so we’re told time and again. Yet, alarmingly in more than a few states that truism of the digital economy seems to have escaped some lawmakers who, right now, are crafting legislation that would create digital borders.
If they’re successful, Internet service in America may soon be governed by a discordant patchwork of competing state regulations that would stifle investment, innovation and growth. This blatantly violates the spirit of the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause which made the U.S. one big market rather than a bunch of small ones. This clause was essential for making the U.S. the mightiest economy in the world.
Only Congress can stop this state-oriented madness of hobbling the Internet by putting in place a “light-touch” regulatory framework that prioritizes free and open online access, protects privacy, and provides meaningful consumer protections. If it’s done correctly, it will encourage the kind of investment and innovation critical to maintaining America’s position as a global leader.
If that sounds like a heavy lift, it isn’t.
Indeed, light-touch regulation is the way the Internet was always governed before the Obama administration decided to apply an overbearing government solution to a problem that didn’t exist. Nearly two decades after the web forever transformed modern life, the Obama FCC imposed on the World Wide Web the same antiquated framework that, nearly a century ago, governed railroads and rotary-dial telephones.
The rule change was intended to make the web more accessible, but in fact it was a regulatory misstep that promised to freeze the Internet in a 2015 paradigm, rather than allowing it to continue evolving in the same dynamic way it had since its inception.
When those tighter controls were imposed, investment went down. After the partisan, 3-2 FCC vote in 2015 to regulate the Internet under Title II, investment by the largest Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) declined by about $3.6 billion.
In short, it was a failed public policy experiment. Unsurprisingly, it turns out the Internet does better in a free enterprise environment rather than under the control of government planners. This administration was wise to reverse it under the leadership of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Congressional Republicans must reject any attempts by Democrats to bring back Title II using the Congressional Review Act (CRA).
Which brings us to the states. Having failed to achieve a federal takeover of the Internet, some crony Big Tech Capitalist and their progressive allies have a new strategy which is to impose the same type of onerous government restrictions on the Internet at the state level. Lawmakers in more than two dozen states are also pushing bills that would impose unique state-specific regulatory or privacy laws on Internet providers.
A much more productive agenda in the states would be to aggressively embrace technology and foster innovation and investment. States should reduce regulations and barriers to investment to prevent antiquated local zoning and permitting processes from impeding the placement of new infrastructure necessary to deploy next-generation, 5G wireless technology. It would make sure states do not impose ill-fitting local constraints on communications technologies that transcend political boundaries.
Over the last year, we’ve seen how America’s economic potential can be realized through a policy of deregulation. And we know from the previous eight years how red tape, burdensome rules and government decrees invariably lead to economic malaise and stagnation.
State regulation of the Internet under the guise of protecting consumers is the wrong approach. Instead it will unquestionably hamper growth and stunt innovation.
It’s time for Congress to end this debate once and for all — reject any backdoor re-regulation of the Internet and work together on a sustainable Internet policy. The Internet is too important to the modern economy to be left to the whims of political ambitions and changing administrations.
• Steve Forbes is the chairman and editor in chief of Forbes Media.
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