A third way on net neutrality?

This fall, my son decided to participate in the speech and debate club at his school, his father beaming with pride. To help encourage him, I also volunteered as a judge.

Throughout the year, I had a neat opportunity to watch kids from area schools construct arguments for and against topics, and watch how they learned how to respond to each other and try to win arguments.

They debated two topics throughout the year. The first was whether or not kids should be allowed to have cell phones in school. A simple, appropriate topic for many who were having their first experience researching and debating a topic.

The second topic, though, was net neutrality.

The net neutrality debate continues.

Ambitious, I thought when I first learned it would be a topic. As I watched my son attempt to learn about the topic, I saw a most confused, befuddled look wash over his face. It was clearly way over his head.

I helped, of course. But mindful of not letting my own opinion pollute his, I had to significantly hold back my perspective on the issue, which as regular readers of this column know, is decidedly against.

Particularly hard for me was helping him construct arguments in favor of net neutrality, and allowing the common, unthinking lies — like that it will lead to ISPs blocking Facebook — to persist. So I tried to steer him toward better, less absurd arguments in favor.

After judging the kids (I wasn’t allowed to judge my own) I asked them how they liked the topic, and to a person, they all said that they didn’t really understand it. Not surprising, as it took me six months of study when I worked on the issue in Washington to actually grasp the concepts for real, and stop speaking in internet-fueled talking points.

Upon reflection, I wonder if it was even right to debate the topic in that way anyway. Most people don’t understand this, in the hyperbolic debate on the issue, but there is — generally speaking — consensus in the industry, both on the content provider side, and the ISP side, in favor of some form of “net neutrality.”

The real question that is in dispute is who does the regulating, and how that regulating occurs. The “best case scenario” — from a consumer perspective — would be a system that effectively protects the open internet without limiting future investment in broadband infrastructure.

That was always the folly of the Obama-era Title II reclassification by the Federal Communications Commission. It was basically a gift to the content providers — namely Google, Facebook, and Netflix — while tying the hands of ISPs.

Indeed, this is the thing most people don’t understand about net neutrality. At its core, it is really a conflict between gigantic companies like Google against others like Verizon. It is far less about “an open internet” and far more about corporate politics.

In any event, with the recent reversal by the FCC on the issue of net neutrality, Congress thinks that they should ride to the rescue, with some arguing that they should do legislatively what the partisan FCC did in 2015.

That would be a mistake.

For nearly 20 years, before the FCC’s Title II reclassification, investment and innovation occurred across the internet ecosystem due to a light-touch regulatory treatment of broadband service.

The Obama-led FCC changed the game in 2015 by implementing a burdensome regulatory regime that had the direct impact of slowing investments in innovation. Broadband providers were forced to spend valuable resources on regulatory compliance instead of investing in business expansion and innovation.

Congress needs to resist the urge to use the much-politicized Congressional Review Act on this question. Perhaps, instead it should pursue some commonsense legislation that permanently preserves an open internet and provides the certainty ISPs need to continue to expand broadband access.

Here in Maine, too many rural communities lack reliable access to high-speed broadband, which is increasingly becoming indispensable to everyday life.

The FCC’s ruling in 2015 made it harder for broadband providers to expand to these communities. Congress shouldn’t try to replicate those mistakes through the use of the CRA.

Instead, Congress should enact legislation that sets clear, defined rules. Sen. John Kennedy — yes, seriously — of Louisiana recently introduced legislation that seeks to address the issue in a far more logical way. Sen. Susan Collins, as a key swing vote on this issue, has a chance to find a compromise by working with Kennedy and others in the Senate to pass permanent legislation that enshrines such principles into law.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.