Commentary / Coronavirus

“Net Neutrality”: Pandemic Vindicates FCC Chairman Ajit Pai

ChinaAmong its other byproducts, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the asininity of casting every item in leftists’ exhaustive policy wishlist in life-or-death rhetorical terms.

After all, there’s nothing like an actual existential threat to re-contextualize cheap partisan overuse of the term “existential threat,” from climate change to so-called “Net Neutrality.”

In 2017, new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai moved to repeal a 2015 Obama Administration effort to regulate internet service as a public utility under laws written in the 1930s for copper-wire telephone service.

The term “Net Neutrality” itself was risible, because there’s nothing “neutral” about the federal government imposing a one-size-fits-all business model upon the internet marketplace, thereby picking winners and losers.  The internet had flourished from 1996 through 2015 under a light-touch regulatory approach, so the Obama Administration’s “Net Neutrality” regulation was the deviation from the two-decade norm.

Moreover, the negative consequences of the Obama Administration’s “Net Neutrality” effort were immediate and negative.  For the first time outside of an economic recession, the amount of private investment in internet infrastructure actually declined.  In just the first year of the Obama “Net Neutrality” rule, investment fell by a depressing $5.6 billion.

Accordingly, Chairman Pai led the FCC effort to repeal the destructive Obama Administration rule, and return federal internet service regulation to the light-touch regulatory environment that prevailed from 1996 to 2015, under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Leftist response was swift, crude and prototypically dishonest.  Late-night comedians solemnly warned impressionable viewers that the Trump Administration and Chairman Pai would destroy the internet.  Protestors gathered outside Pai’s home, even menacing him and his family.  Writing in Medium in December 2017, Benjamin Sledge openly labeled it a matter of “life and death”:

Let’s say you need to chat with the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, but can’t afford the supercharged internet package, so you’re stuck with lagging service.  As stated, every second counts when you’re contemplating suicide…  The ramifications are further reaching than just having to deal with buffering on Hulu.  The very fight for the heart of mental health could land squarely on our ability to access the resources we need to grow stronger and healthier.  With every shooting that happens, celebrity suicide, or high school kid who goes home and drowns the world out with headphones to numb his depression and dark thoughts, we know mental health is a massive issue.  The question is now whether we care enough to protect the fight for mental health. 

Unsurprisingly, histrionic predictions of that sort proved empty.

Instead of “killing the internet,” Chairman Pai’s effort bore immediate fruit.  In the first year alone, U.S. internet speeds increased by 40%, and private infrastructure investment reversed its decline and swung upward in 2018.

And now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, Chairman Pai’s return to the 1996-2015 light-touch regulatory model has achieved further vindication.

In Europe, which more broadly follows the Obama Administration’s preferred model of heavier internet regulation, networks have strained under sharply increased bandwidth demand as pandemic quarantines have increased home use for both work and leisure.  American internet service, in contrast, has navigated the new bandwidth demands with less difficulty.

As The Wall Street Journal editorial board noted, that’s the direct result of policy choices made by the FCC under Chairman Pai:

Americans perhaps take for granted that their internet hasn’t slowed during the coronavirus pandemic, unlike in Europe where speeds and streaming quality have been reduced so networks don’t collapse.  Credit America’s larger private business investment and lighter regulation.  Europe regulates broadband providers like public utilities similar to the Obama-era net neutrality rule that Mr. Pai rescinded.  Americans working at home would be in a much worse position in this pandemic if the Obama rules were still in place. 

Whereas ten years ago the average American household consumed approximately 44% more data than the average European household, today we consume over three times as much data.  That reflects the fact that in America, private internet providers have invested almost 2.5 times as much money per household than European providers over the past decade.

The takeaway is obvious.

A greater emphasis on free-market policies and a light-touch regulatory approach brought immediate and measurable improvements to U.S. internet service after a brief scare under the Obama Administration’s European-style “Net Neutrality” deviation.

As experience amid the coronavirus pandemic has already established, Americans should be grateful for the FCC’s prescient wisdom under the leadership of Chairman Pai.

Reprinted with Permission from - Center for Individual Freedom by - Timothy H. Lee

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