Last month the reelection of President Barack Obama underscored the dramatic impact of technology on campaigns and politics in America. In a culture of increasingly Internet-savvy people, the process of policymaking is impacted more by viral memes and text donations than by traditional modes of advertising, advocacy and media outreach. But as the evolution of the Internet accelerates our communications and interactions with each other, the regulatory framework shaping this space becomes more outmoded by the day.
The 1996 Telecommunications Act was enacted sixteen years ago, before the likes of Facebook, Google, Skype, Netflix and Twitter came online and changed the world forever. It was originally intended to promote new entrants and competition in the telecommunications marketplace, but its present-day application is limited because the Act itself is based on certain industry dynamics that no longer exist today.
While President Obama’s reelection makes Beltway insiders skeptical that the 113th Congress will rewrite the ’96 Act, Federal Communications Commissioner Ajit Pai was on point in calling for “the creation of a 21st century framework for the all-IP world.”
During the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies 2012 Annual U.S. Telecom Symposium, Commissioner Pai noted the importance of having a regulatory framework consistent with the current state of the Internet. What that new framework will be, however, hinges upon the D.C. Circuit’s forthcoming ruling on the FCC’s 2010 net neutrality order, which will more clearly define the breadth and scope of the Commission’s authority over Internet regulation.
In his remarks, Pai posited two potential Commissions in the new year: One in which the FCC is emboldened by the D.C. Circuit’s affirmation of its 2010 order and pursues a more aggressive regulatory regime. In the other, the FCC, faced with a clearer understanding about the limits of its authority, must reevaluate the extent and manner in which it pursues Internet regulation in the future.
The outcome of the D.C. Circuit’s decision is the stuff political dog fights are made of. But the question of how and whether the Internet should be regulated is more than a partisan issue.
Republicans and Democrats alike ought to agree that the telecommunications framework created nearly 20 years ago is less than adequate when it comes to addressing the complex nuances of our current Internet economy. And if the purpose of the FCC is to protect the public interest, our communications standards must be updated.
The world we live in today is very different from the one we faced just a generation ago. In the late 1980’s when the World Wide Web first became a public commodity, people relied on dial-up through their telephone providers to access the net. Today, Internet access points vary – from wireless to cable, from fiber to DSL and satellite – and the ways we interact with the web are guided by personal choice and access to affordable service options.
At a time when search engines are morphing into Internet service providers and social apps are partnering to deliver voice and video calling services to people on their computers, tablets and mobile devices, we have to acknowledge that the landscape has changed.
We have moved beyond monopoly and duopoly alternatives. To say that we lack competition in the marketplace only reflects the narrow definition of competition found in the ’96 Act – a document that does not even acknowledge or contemplate the existence of some of the largest, most powerful players in our current Internet economy.
We have just begun to scratch the surface when it comes to unlocking the full potential of the Internet. It will take time for our laws to catch up to our technology, but Congress and the FCC should remain focused on the future.
The Internet is host to some of the boldest innovation and entrepreneurial excellence this country has ever seen. The burgeoning ecosystem is a thriving part of our economy that contributes a growing percentage to our GDP each year. While it is typically useful to learn from the past, we must be progressive in our thinking and do our utmost to support America’s growth in the future.
Commissioner Pai is right, if our goal is to spur continued innovation, investment and growth in this space, “we have to establish a modern regulatory framework to expedite what some have referred to as the Internet transformation and our transition to an all-IP world.”