Net neutrality survived a Republican attack last week, as a Senate vote along party lines rejected a Republican proposal to overturn Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules that prevent internet service providers from altering connection speed or the normal prioritizing of traffic flow to discriminate on behalf of favored content partners. The regulations preserve a free and fair internet that fosters competition by allowing the FCC to impose fines and bring injunctions against companies that violate previously determined fairness standards.
While the 52-46 Senate vote amounted to nothing more than a symbolic exercise, as President Barack Obama had pledged earlier in the week to veto the legislation, the regulations put in place last December faced their toughest challenge to date, as Republicans turned a previously innocuous issue into a partisan political battle.
Senate Republicans cited the FCC’s questionable authority to enforce regulation of the internet by suggesting that FCC regulations are jobs killers. Supporters of the repeal, led by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), argued that the FCC was unfairly set up as the internet’s “gatekeeper” and that net neutrality regulations have hindered the tech sector.
According to Hutchison, net neutrality is a package of burdensome regulations from Washington on an internet that has flourished for two decades. However, far from stifling investment, the FCC's net neutrality rules foster small businesses and support their demonstrated ability to create jobs. Republicans remain tone deaf to the real business consequences of repealing net neutrality.
Democrats against the repeal argued that FCC rules are necessary to prevent large corporations from throttling internet access, and they suggested that Hutchison and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), while arguing that net neutrality has killed jobs, failed to take the long-term view on the issue, which points to improved innovation.
The benefits of net neutrality exist conceptually in the long-term, and neutrality regulations should be debated on the potential for fostering innovation, not in the literal terms of number of jobs added or lost. Net neutrality has little to no significant impact on large companies. For example, Facebook and Microsoft reap no benefit from the protections. In fact, publicly they remain agnostic to the policies.
By ensuring through law that entrepreneurs retain the freedom to challenge the largest internet service providers with newer, cheaper, and better products, the potential for innovation grows. Net neutrality may actually help lesser-known entrepreneurs, the 20-somethings creating mobile applications in garages in Palo Alto, California, by providing them the opportunity to compete fairly against larger corporations that may be delivering the same internet service or content.
Yet, repeal of net neutrality has the dangerous possibility of dissuading not only prospective entrepreneurs from launching their products to compete against large companies, but it also imperils the status quo of a free and fair internet environment.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) suggested that the question of whether companies benefit from the policy is secondary to the principle that the standards set for fair use of the internet. “Net neutrality and the rules the FCC passed are about keeping the internet the way it is today and the way it has always been,” he said.
Net neutrality survived this time, albeit barely, and the GOP's partisan repeal effort backfired. If the rhetorical battles waged last week reveal anything, it is something that Silicon Valley has long known – Washington still does not get innovation.
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