There are times when lawmakers show tremendous vision for our future: chartering land grant universities; passing the GI Bill to educate World War II veterans; building the interstate highway system.
When it comes to predicting technology trends, by contrast, lawmakers are less prescient. In 1996, few politicians had ever heard of the Internet, and none appreciated its potential to revolutionize how Americans work, live and learn. To be fair, even few technology experts could see that far out. Labor Department economists projecting 10-year employment trends completely missed the surge in networking, computing and wireless communications that resulted from the Internet. And Congress’ telecommunications policy leaders barely acknowledged the Internet when writing their comprehensive 1996 Telecommunications Act to govern telecom into the future.
What happened next is history. With the arrival of the Web browser, the Internet exploded on the scene. Businesses found new ways to reach customers and operate more efficiently and globally. Consumers found answers to every question they dreamt up on Yahoo; entrepreneurs invented new industries on eBay; innovators could invent on their HP laptops; salespeople went mobile with their BlackBerries. America led the world in pioneering smartphones, cloud computing, the “app economy” and data analytics. Distinctions within the “old” telecom worlds were obliterated by the competitive realities of the new tech economy, with slow and silo-style voice, video and wireless providers now competing furiously in the digital domain to provide various services on multiple platforms.
Earlier this week, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai joined the Pittsburgh Technology Council at Carnegie Mellon University to discuss the federal government’s role in accelerating economic growth and job creation in Pittsburgh—a growing tech hub—and beyond.
Pai’s visit to Pittsburgh comes just one week after he urged Congress to help ensure that 20th-century regulations of legacy, copper-wire networks do not hinder investment in 21st-century, Internet-technology-based networks. Pai correctly pointed out during this congressional oversight hearing that the 1996 Telecommunications Act is anachronistic and often counterproductive, leading to an inconsistent and unpredictable policy environment. Such regulatory uncertainty chills investment and undermines innovation.
The robust success of the Internet and its tremendous impact on the U.S. economy can largely be attributed to government’s decision to not regulate the Internet, whether intentional or accidental. In the 1990s, the Federal Communications Commission famously took a “hands-off” approach to Internet regulation in order to encourage investment and innovation.
We are lucky to have Pai at the FCC and raising such questions, because the regulatory humility demonstrated in the 1990s is not universally shared. Even as Pai preaches restraint, others would have government exercise greater control over Internet industry operations.
Pai is right: a modern, modest and narrowly tailored new oversight law is needed.
As former FCC Chairman William Kennard observed: “The best decision government ever made with respect to the Internet was the decision that the FCC made 15 years ago not to impose regulation on it. This was not a dodge; it was a decision not to act. It was intentional restraint born of humility.”
Originally published at Business Journals