This week, President Obama published his principles for the Open Internet on whitehouse.gov, noting: “More than any other invention of our time, the Internet has unlocked possibilities we could just barely imagine a generation ago. And here’s a big reason we’ve seen such incredible growth and innovation: Most Internet providers have treated Internet traffic equally.” The President’s principles for ensuring this treatment of Internet traffic for the future calls for “no blocking, no throttling, increased transparency, and no paid prioritization,” along with development of careful rules to ensure these principles, by regulating the Internet as a public utility for the first time in history. Almost everyone agrees on the majority of those principles. But let’s take a step back to think about the needs of real people – real Internet users – in the midst of this drive to protect access to content. Today’s Internet users have access to all available, free content, without challenge. Our most significant Internet challenges lie elsewhere. Millions of Americans still cannot afford to access the Internet on their platform of choice, and, that too few Americans have 21st century skills necessary to compete and create in the digital economy. Hispanic, African American, poor and rural communities remain staggeringly separate from Internet wealth. Retooling schools and teachers for the 21st century to fix this is a significant priority. Jobs and economic opportunity is also a priority. Unless government is going to foot the entire Internet infrastructure bill, we need continued private sector investment in the technologies of the future, which include ever faster wired broadband, and innovative satellite and wireless Internet that will one day be a viable competitive option to a home broadband connection. What is missing from the net neutrality debate is this connection to the needs of real people. A robust, equitable Internet ecosystem requires a lot of investment – billions of dollars annually. The Internet has been governed smartly, not as a utility, but as an information service by Section 706 of the Telecom Act for decades in order to facilitate that investment. The framework has been successful. Real people have benefited from the millions of middle class jobs (including blue collar jobs) and everyday access to the modern Internet. What differentiates the Internet from your utilities is that the Internet must get better year over year to meet our 21st century goals, and beyond. Utilities, in contrast, do not advance the way the Internet has. Your water company is not attracting investment and growing year by year. But the Internet has, especially because it lives in a different regulatory category. Thoughtful proposals from national organizations including MMTC and others have called on the FCC to advance President Obama’s main principles, but to go further, calling for strong protections for everyday Internet users, through a working mechanism for complaints for throttling or blocking. They have also called for establishing an assumption against paid priority, which would leave open limited opportunities for innovative partnerships that would not put the entire cost of innovative Internet offerings on you and me, and our monthly bill. Putting Internet users’ real needs first would not create rules that foreclose the kind of innovative options making wireless Internet more beneficial, including so-called “zero-rated plans” that allow unlimited use of certain app(s) of choice, without eating into a poor family’s monthly data. These kinds of choices make the Internet more accessible, and more beneficial to everyone. These options would not be available under a strict net neutrality regime. Putting the needs of real people first means protecting their right to access all content on the Internet, AND it also means crafting rules that don’t foreclose what has worked to make the modern Internet better. It should not mean eliminating the mechanism through which the Internet has gotten faster year by year, by treating it instead as a stale pipeline left to crumble under last century’s telephone rules. To achieve the President’s primary principles, and prioritize the needs of every day Internet users, let protect access to content through smart rules because today’s politics are calling for it. But lets also create real, nimble consumer protections. And the FCC must find a middle ground that, instead of retrofitting century old utility rules on a modern miracle, keeps the Internet evolving, innovative, open and getting faster. This would be the best way to meet the needs of real people, and solve real problems online.
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