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hiawatha bray | tech lab

Trump’s FCC can save the Internet — by doing nothing

FCC chairman Ajit Pai intends to undo Obama-era Net neutrality regulations.

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FCC chairman Ajit Pai intends to undo Obama-era Net neutrality regulations.

No doubt about it, the Trump administration is creating jobs. Its move to strike down Internet regulations imposed by the Obama administration amounts to a full-employment act for tech-industry lobbyists and lawyers, who are likely to be spending the next year or two fighting the administration’s repeal of “Net neutrality” rules.

Not to mention tech pundits who tell you what to think about it.

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So here’s what I think: Net neutrality is an effort to extend government control to one of the few sectors of the economy that is largely free of bureaucrats — and spectacularly successful for precisely that reason.

In theory, everybody’s in favor of Net neutrality, the idea that the companies that provide access to the Internet, such as Comcast Corp. or AT&T Inc. or Verizon Communications Inc., shouldn’t be allowed to put a thumb on the scale.

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In a Net-neutral world, videos from YouTube look as good as videos from Comcast’s NBC network, and Google’s search results appear on screen no faster than those from Yahoo, now that it’s owned by Verizon.

How to accomplish this noble end? Well, we could try doing nothing. That was largely the approach taken since the 1990s, with pretty satisfactory results. There were occasional abuses of power by Internet companies, but these were generally abandoned in the face of public fury and regulatory threats. Then in 2015, the Obama-controlled Federal Communications Commission said it would protect Internet access by using the Communications Act, a law written in the 1930s to cover the telephone industry.

The decision appalled Republican Ajit Pai , then a junior member of the five-person FCC board. Today, under Trump, Pai is the FCC chairman. And on Wednesday, as he announced his intention to undo his predecessor’s work, he seemed to be having the time of his life. Accusing his critics of lying and describing their arguments as “a fact-free zone,” Pai plans a return to the good old days of the 1990s, when a Democratic president realized that what the Internet needed most from the federal government was a good leaving-alone.

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Pai might have simply used the GOP majority on the commission to strike down the 2015 decision. Instead, he’s going to go through the whole rule-making exercise again and come up with a new set of rules, which the FCC is scheduled to release Thursday. That will give the public less than one month to weigh in, as Pai said the commission will vote May 18.

There’s no question about Pai’s endgame — a return to light-touch regulation of the Internet, first adopted under President Bill Clinton. Pai made much of the fact that this hands-off policy was endorsed back in the 1990s by liberal Democrats like Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

The FCC chairman was especially hard, and rightly so, on the new “Internet conduct standard” established by the 2015 FCC decision. That allows the agency to prosecute Internet providers for any activity it says could harm consumers or content providers. That sounds like a license to question pretty much any new business idea that an Internet access provider might devise.

That’s exactly what happened in 2015, when the cellphone company T-Mobile USA let customers stream unlimited music and video with no extra Internet data charges.

At first, then-FCC chairman Tom Wheeler hailed the T-Mobile plan. Weeks later, Wheeler launched a year-long investigation of T-Mobile, as well as of rival cellular companies with similar plans.

Free music and video streaming is a marketing master stroke and a delight for consumers, and I’m glad the FCC under Pai gave the practice its blessing back in February. But the FCC still has the power to “do something” about any new business practice that rubs three out of five commissioners the wrong way.

It’s a great way to scare companies out of trying something new. “Before you can do something, you have to go to the government and say, ‘Mother may I,’ ” said entrepreneur Tom Evslin, who founded ITXC, one of the earliest Internet telephone companies, in the late 1990s.

If the FCC had taken the same attitude in Evslin’s day, we might not have Internet phone services like Skype and FaceTime. In fact, traditional phone companies urged the FCC to regulate the early Internet phone companies under old-school phone rules. But in the end, the agency flatly refused. The Internet is different, it said. Leave it alone. And now you can now talk to someone on the other side of the planet, and pay next to nothing.

I’m not naive; Internet companies have near-monopolies in most of the United States and might well abuse that power. But the best remedy would be a simple law to ban specific bad acts, like blocking or throttling a competitor’s data. Instead, the Obama-era policy gave the FCC immense power over every decision made by the nation’s Internet carriers. Regulating the phone companies this way gave us decades of excellent service, but also a near-total absence of innovation. I have no desire for an encore.

Remember when “Hands Off the Internet” was the battle cry of most online activists? Now hordes of them are on the other side, demanding that the federal government seize control of the most powerful and innovative communication system ever devised.

It’s up to the Trump administration to save the Net neutrality activists from themselves.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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