Partisanship will only stunt progress progress on internet

by Bruce Mehlman and Larry Irving

While many things in Washington seemed broken over the past few decades, tech policy has not been one of them. Regardless of which party controlled Congress or the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), technology issues enjoyed civil discourse, bipartisan collaboration and thoughtful compromise. Partisanship stopped at the network’s edge.

Until now.

As thought leaders and policy gurus convened last month for the annual “State of the Net” conference, they faced a sobering reality: The State of the Net is imperiled. By Washington. The borderline theological debate over “net neutrality” is breaking the rules and threatening an approach that served our nation well. Policy deliberations once decided by non-partisan engineers have been hijacked by the Occupy Wall Street versus Tea Party legions. Battle is joined, lobbyists engaged, grassroots activated.

And the war reached new heights this week, as FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed regulating our most advanced companies based on the rules designed for our oldest.

For a majority of innovators and entrepreneurs around the nation, partisan paralysis is unwelcome news, likely to spawn years of litigation, cloud investment certainty and potentially slow our economy’s most powerful engine. For objective policy analysts, the partisan intensity surrounding the net neutrality debate is unnecessary and counterproductive. Bad politics is making for bad policy.

It has not always been thus. For example, presidents from both parties promoted federal investment in basic research that ensured our research universities’ global preeminence and launched the semiconductor, cellular and Internet industries, among others. Bipartisan high-skilled immigration policies encouraged the best and brightest to study here, invent here and create great jobs here. Collaborative support for patent laws helped craft the critical balance needed for intellectual property to flourish, while bipartisanship enabled the world’s first incentive for private research — the highly-effective R&D tax credit passed in 1981 — subsequently emulated by most developing economies.

A productive, bipartisan answer to the net neutrality challenge is staring us in the face. Congress makes the laws, and Congressional action here can be bipartisan, focused and effective, ensuring the Internet remains “fair and open.” For conservatives, the legislation will ensure that our most advanced technologies are not regulated like 20th century utilities and that FCC authorities are clearly identified by Congress. For liberals, such legislation will explicitly empower agencies to prevent companies from blocking, degrading or placing anti-competitive restrictions on Internet access without risk of yet-one-more legal challenge to their authority. Consumers gain protections, while businesses enjoy greater regulatory certainty. Only the lawyers lose.

America’s historic leadership in high technology innovation and entrepreneurship is more than the product of divine providence or cultural exceptionalism. Enlightened policies and regulatory humility have proved essential elements to reward risk-taking and encourage investment and invention. We face many challenges ahead, demanding smart policy. We need more spectrum to accommodate ever-accelerating wireless use and the Internet of Things. Network operators need greater flexibility to handle the exponential waves of new data. We need a united front against growing digital protectionism and assaults on the market-based multi-stakeholder model. Too few Americans possess the digital literacy to thrive in the knowledge economy, while too many cyber criminals remain unchecked.

It is time to return partisanship to the network’s edge. There is important work to be done.

Originally published at USA Today