Why Conservatives Must Heed Congressman Issa's Call

The core principles that have guided our nation from its inception are as applicable to the Internet age as they were in the time of King George III.

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Itty-bitty government (Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg)

In yesterday's Atlantic interview, Republican Congressman Darrell Issa issued a conservative call to action on Internet policy: "The tech world needs us." He's right. Companies seeking government benefits and progressive advocates seeking increased government control are driving the Internet policy agenda - and they are winning. Government control of communications is Dictatorship 101, yet conservatives have been largely absent from the key technology policy debates that are shaping our communications future. To preserve the ability to innovate without the permission of "kings, presidents, and voting," conservatives must heed Issa's call to defend the Internet from government control.

Where Have Conservatives Been?

Conservatives have failed to perceive the nature and extent of the threat to Internet freedom. Despite evergreen debate regarding the Internet's invention, the catalyst for its commercial development was bipartisan privatization and deregulation. Communications technologies have been heavily regulated in the United States since 1934, when Congress created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Internet protocols and mobile communications technologies were both invented in the 1960s, and were subject to government regulation and control similar to traditional communications services until the 1990s, when they were largely deregulated during the Democratic Clinton Administration. Mobile service was deregulated in 1993, the National Science Foundation privatized the Internet backbone in 1995, and Congress declared that the Internet would not be subject to FCC regulation in 1996. When Congress deregulated mobile service providers, President Clinton said, "This plan creates the infrastructure to develop the most advanced commercial wireless communication networks the world has ever known. It will allow an industry to grow by tens of billions of dollars by the end of the decade, producing hundreds of thousands of new high-skilled, high-wage jobs."

The next decade proved President Clinton was right about deregulation. From 2000 to 2010, the percentage of households with access to a broadband Internet connection jumped from four to 68, and the percentage of the population with mobile connections jumped from 39 to 93. The United States has approximately two-thirds of all 4G LTE subscribers in the world, and the two dominant mobile-operating systems, iOS and Android, are made in the USA. While market-based Internet and mobile communications services grew, services subject to extensive government regulation declined. The percentage of residential households with landline telephone subscriptions fell from 94 to 77, and the percentage of households that watch television over the air fell from 21 to 14.

This evidence demonstrated that market-based policies originally developed by Democrats in the 1990s were working. At that time, there was a largely bipartisan consensus that government intervention in the communications market was unnecessary absent evidence of a market failure. Congress recognized in 1996 that Communications markets were transitioning from an analog era dominated by the Ma Bell telephone monopoly and the cable-video monopoly to a converged digital era featuring competing communications platforms with wireless mobility. The deregulatory policies enacted in the 1990s and extended by Republicans in the 2000s were intended to encourage the transition to an all-IP world governed by market competition rather than government fiat. As the transition accelerated during the 2000s, conservative policymakers turned to other issues. Absent evidence of a market failure, there was nothing for them to do.

The New Progressive Narrative

Some progressives never embraced the Clinton-era bipartisan consensus in favor of deregulatory communications policies, and the extension of these policies in the Bush-era enflamed their opposition. The success of the free market is a threat to progressives who prefer heavy-handed government regulation to the growth and innovation encouraged by the creative destruction inherent in free markets. For the past decade, these advocates have been hard at work developing a technology narrative that would support extensive Internet regulation while appealing to centrists. That narrative, which began with "net neutrality" and has been rebranded "Internet freedom," uses the language of conservatism (they "preserve" the open Internet), the language of liberty (they defend Internet "freedom"), the language of markets (they promote "competition"), and the language of modernization (they encourage "innovation") in vague, sweeping principles.

It is the application of these principles in practice that has alerted conservatives to the threat of unlimited government intervention in communications. The turning point was the adoption of net-neutrality rules by the FCC in 2010, which addressed a 2008 FCC order finding that Comcast had acted anticompetitively when it blocked bit torrent without notice. The FCC's net-neutrality rules, however, were not based on competitive concerns or limited to content-blocking. The FCC dictated that Internet service providers transmit the traffic of content providers for free and recoup their network costs solely from their subscribers irrespective of the level of competition. According to the FCC, the "threats" to Internet openness that its rules are intended to address "do not depend upon broadband providers having market power with respect to end users."

It was only then that conservatives realized progressives weren't playing by the same set of rules anymore. In the FCC proceeding, conservative advocates had focused their net neutrality arguments on the level of competition among Internet service providers. In a single stroke, the FCC's net neutrality order dismissed the earlier bipartisan agreement limiting government regulation of communications in the absence of market failure, which rendered competition irrelevant. Worse still, the FCC did not articulate a new principle for limiting its intervention in communications markets. The new progressive strategy to increase government control of communications by coopting conservative language had scored a massive victory. In 2010, the last remnants of government regulatory restraint were swept away.

Presented by

Fred Campbell is director of the Communications Liberty and Innovation Project (CLIP) at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and an adjunct professor in the Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law LL.M program. He was formerly president and CEO of the Wireless Communications Association International and has served as chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission.

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