The Federal Communications Commission has voted to treat the Internet as a utility, but the public-policy debate is far from over. Unfortunately, the wrong things are being debated.
The loudest noise is from established interests, powerful giant companies that are powerfully crying wolf, suggesting that the world will end if their interests are not protected. But the truth is that commercial opportunities online are so vast that companies big and small, old and new all will profit from the FCC’s decision.
So put all that aside. We’re talking about the public policy of the United States of America, not the commercial interest of a handful of companies. The debate over the rules governing the Internet and “net neutrality” should focus on two areas:
▪ Equality and freedom consistent with our values as a democratic republic.
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▪ Promotion of innovation that will drive our economy and society forward.
The decisions we make now should leverage the value of the greatest communication invention of all time to all of us.
First, access: Do we want a digital public square that is accessible to all, or do we have a digital public square where citizens are able to participate only depending on their wealth? In other words, do we believe in equality or do we believe in a digital version of “separate but equal” that we, as a country, left behind decades ago?
Our public-policy discussion should focus on the fundamental role that maximum Internet access plays in the nation’s equality. Every day, we lead more of our commercial, political and social lives online. Our governments use the Internet and social media to manage civic affairs. You can communicate to the far corners of the globe as fast as you can tweet.
When your access is restricted, your role is restricted. Your ability to participate in our society is restricted. This is why open Internet matters. It’s as essential to modern life as electricity and water.
Now, innovation: The Internet’s story is a story of innovation. How did we get Google, Facebook and Amazon? We got them by providing them a level playing field, where no existing behemoth (at the time, Netscape, AOL and Yahoo!) could dominate or close them out of a new way of doing things. Protecting them or Netflix or Comcast shouldn’t be the focus of our public policy. What we need are policies that protect the companies that haven’t been invented — or even imagined by letting them have a genuinely level playing field.
And for our civic discourse, we need to ensure that money won’t drown out other voices. Our policies need to be rooted in the ideas of freedom and fair competition.
So, what happened last week at the FCC? The government acted to preserve both freedom and equality. There won’t be any fast or slow lanes on the Internet. All traffic will flow freely. Individuals, groups, large firms, tiny start-ups — everyone — will be treated the same way.
The devil is in the details, of course. But regulations, properly applied, do not automatically restrict freedom. In fact, they can protect it. In the Declaration of Independence, our country’s founders held certain truths to be self-evident, equality and liberty among them, but they were careful to add: “… to secure these rights, Governments are instituted …”
We live in a world of constant change. We’ve not heard the end of this debate. And this is not the only area of life in which technology is forcing us to adapt. But if we stay focused on what’s really at stake — how we live our lives in the digital age — we can see past the political fog and make better choices.
Alberto Ibargüen is the president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.