The 20th anniversary of the privatization of the Internet deserves recognition by the U.S. Congress and celebration by all Americans as “Internet Independence Day.” Two decades ago, on April 30, 1995, the Internet was privatized with the decommissioning of the NSFNET backbone.
The past two decades of Internet-driven success were set in motion with the passage of the High Performance Computing Act of 1991, championed by Sen. Al Gore and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. That decision of the U.S. government to step back and privatize the Internet led to a thriving and open Internet that provides a remarkable platform for innovation.
Ironically, the Federal Communication Commission’s recently announced Open Internet Order reasserts government control over the Internet by the means of repurposing Depression-era industrial policy meant to address a monopoly in voice-transmission technology. The FCC went down the dangerous and uncertain legal path of reverting to traditional, utility-style regulation under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.
The arrogance and utter incongruity of declaring Internet and telephone networks equivalent has led a group of friends, all of them reluctant activists, to convene an effort to restore Internet independence. So far, the group of “Tech Innovators” includes John Perry Barlow, Mark Cuban, Tim Draper, Tom Evslin, Dave Farber, Charlie Giancarlo, George Gilder, John Gilmore, Brian Martin, Bob Metcalfe, Ray Ozzie, Jeff Pulver, Michael Robertson, Scott McNealy and Les Vadasz. Through this civic initiative, we hope to defend the remarkable success of the Internet and lead a conversation toward the future — not the past, where laws enacted under FDR must inevitably lead us.
The open Internet rules from the FCC end the “permissionless innovation” they purport to protect by inviting the commission to regulate computer networks for the first time. The uncertain benefits and certain unintended consequences of the policy reversal expose the communicating public to unnecessary risk and threaten to upend the success of the past 20 years.
The Tech Innovators believe that by recognizing “Internet Independence Day,” Congress can help initiate and advance bipartisan legislation to restore the private-sector framework responsible for of the success of the Internet.
Americans today enjoy a thousand-fold improvement from the 56Kbps dial-up modems that 15 million Internet early adopters relied on in the ’90s. The Internet now reaches 3 billion people, and a proliferation of services push communication options far beyond the long-distance phone call of 1995.
The FCC plan to impose public utility Title II provisions ends the policies responsible for these accomplishments. Domains subject to telephone-style regulations suffer stagnation without exception. A routine 10Mbps connection available as a nonregulated information service prior to the Open Internet Order would have cost $10,000 per month as a Title II data service in 1995.
The insertion of fiat regulatory powers will prove fatal to the entrepreneurial energies responsible for building what FCC Chairman Wheeler calls “the most powerful network in the history of mankind” — a network built beyond the reach of FCC regulatory jurisdiction.
The Open Internet Order invents artificial distinctions between content companies, Internet providers and end users for the purposes of regulation. This will lead to the same types of regulatory arbitrage and innovation-deadening consequences as prior distinctions such as “long distance” or “intra-lata.” History demonstrates that asserting artificial market distinctions for purposes of regulation always invites arbitrage and unintended consequences.
The commission obtains jurisdiction by changing the definition of “public switched network” to include networks with IP addresses. The complete transformation of a policy landscape represents a decision the Constitution grants exclusively to Congress.
The coming litigation leaves the Internet ecosystem in jeopardy without regard to the outcome. The preference for a congressional action addressing current conditions and issues relative to the prospects of an 80-year-old regulatory framework should not be controversial.
The privatization of the Internet represented an experiment. Restoring Internet independence merely recognizes the remarkable success of the commercial Internet.
Daniel Berninger, founder of VCXC, convened the Tech Innovators as a civic initiative among friends.