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The Internet isn’t broken, and doesn’t need the government to fix it. That was my overriding message in a debate on Chicago’s PBS station WTTW Tuesday night with Illinois ACLU Executive Director Colleen K. Connell.
In an excellent discussion led by “Chicago Tonight” host Phil Ponce, Connell and I talked about President Obama’s attempt to strong-arm the FCC into regulating the Internet like a public utility under “Title II” of the Telecommuncations act of 1996. That’s the only sure-fire way to ruin the vibrant digital economy and the online experience we all now take for granted on our computers and mobile devices.
If Obama was president in 1996, Netflix and Hulu as we know it today wouldn’t exist. Why? Because anyone who thought it was a good idea to stream content directly to consumers — circumvening the bundled-channels model of cable TV, and even creating original content — would have had to invest enormous human and monetary capital into convincing the FCC that it was something consumers wanted. All of that creative energy would have been wasted on goverment rent-seeking instead of creating what we have today.
Thankfully, a Republican Congress and Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1996 put then-nacent broadband under “Title I,” which did not give the FCC the power to micromanage the Internet “on our behalf.” As a result, dozens of ISPs (Comcast, AT&T, Verizon are the Big Three, but not the only ones), content providers (Google’s YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, ESPN), millions of app creators, and billions of consumers enjoy the ever-evolving wonders of the digital age. It might be the best example Adam Smith and Milton Friedman could have conceived of free-market capitalism providing the best services at the lowest prices and at the fastest possible speeds — both in terms of innovation and delivery.
Yet Connell, my debate opponent from the Illinois ACLU, was arguing that now — right now — the government must get its molasses-filled hands deep into the structures of all these wonders and start mucking around. Why? Because of potential “anti-consumer” actions that might be taken by the big players in the digital economy. It’s a hard argument to make, which is why I got the better of these exchanges.