On Wednesday, netizens of all stripes are holding a “day of action” to rally support for an open Internet and air their outrage at Federal Communications Commission’s plans to undo Obama-era regulations. Such protests are very 2017. From state capitals to cable TV studios to college campuses, we’ve seen a rise in marches, protests, and public demonstrations of outrage as citizens demand to be heard.
In fact, it’s a common refrain these days that people are not feeling heard. Over the past 12 years, Americans have gone to the polls six times to vote for federal government leaders. They opted for a change of the House, Senate, or White House in 5 out of 6 elections.
Americans are obviously not getting the change they want. After each Republican electoral win, GOP partisans proclaim that voters objected to the “Democratic Nanny State and its job-killing taxes and entrepreneur — stifling regulations.” When Democrats win, they attribute it to voters’ disgust with a “heartless Republican war on women, children, minorities, the poor, the elderly, and the LGBT community.”
But there is a third possibility. Perhaps voters keep seeking change because elected officials are not solving real problems. Shrill voices on each side bait social media clicks, raise money for permanent-campaign NGOs, dominate cable TV, and grab the headlines. But what if most Americans prefer pragmatic leaders who resist grandiose grandstanding and seek common-sense compromise?
No issue epitomizes this disconnect between the manufactured fights of today’s political performance art and actual problem solving more than the debate over the open Internet, commonly called “Net Neutrality.” Democrats hype it as the civil rights movement in digital form, a moral crusade, while the GOP equates the fight to the anti-Communist era battle between market-led and centrally-planned economies. Each side amps up the volume to rally their base and increase their fundraising, while media personalities eagerly leverage outraged rants into outsized ratings.
For many less-partisan advocates of good government, this has been frustrating at best, maddening at worst. And it explains both Washington’s policy paralysis and why voters keep opting for new leaders who can get things done.
The reality is that both sides of the net neutrality debate agree on 90 percent of the same core principles of an open Internet. Network operators should be transparent about how they handle network congestion. ISPs should not block or interfere with non-harmful Internet traffic. Consumers should be able to connect any device or download any app they choose. And broadband providers shouldn’t favor their own services at the expense of smaller rivals, relegating competitors to slower lanes.
Republicans readily embraced these principles when a variation was first offered by Republican FCC Chairman Michael Powell, and again when proffered by Chairman Kevin Martin. Democrat partisans embraced very similar tenets of an open internet in 2010 under Democratic FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. And most in industry accepted these principles as the rules of the road for more than a decade until a federal court determined that the FCC lacked the legal authority to implement them.
Rather than turning to Congress to do its job and establish explicit authority for future FCCs to guarantee an open internet, the previous FCC chairman broke with 20 years of bipartisan precedents and redefined internet services to fit in the same category as landline telephone providers, so they would be more easily regulable, through a partisan 3-2 FCC vote. Predictably, those regulations are now imperiled by the new 3-2 majority, with the new chairman looking to restore the prior decades of once-established policy. But Chairman Pai’s new-old regulations will only last until the Democrats next control the Commission.
This is no way to run a railroad, let alone an information superhighway. Far better to give entrepreneurs certainty and have Congress hammer out disagreements and develop policies appropriate for the 21st century.
Disagreements persist, of course. Many Republicans believe consumers deserve identical privacy protections from ISPs and Internet companies. Many Democrats prefer giving the FCC more authority to regulate the Internet in the future to remedy harms not present today. Neither side will get everything they want, but neither side should ever expect to win 100 percent.
Compromise is not surrender. It’s the explicit objective designed by the founders of our nation. And without it, little gets done, and nothing lasts. Until policymakers accept this reality and do their jobs, we can expect ongoing voter dissatisfaction with Washington and lack of faith in government.