Perhaps I’m betraying my years, but in Washington policy circles there has always been tension between those interested in solving problems and those who see policy disputes as a test of ideology. I’d readily admit falling into the former camp, and have the policy scars to prove it. To be sure, one must have principles and a philosophy of government’s proper role. But a democracy cannot function when either side lapses into rigidity. Or worse, when political advantage becomes more important than the nation’s best interest.
In our little world, and in my decades of interaction with it, I’ve felt, and still feel, that the FCC has tried to stay focused on solving problems and avoided turning issues into dogma. Every chairman in my memory, including the current one, has faced political stampedes of one sort or another. Yet the agency has always tried to find a middle ground and a consensus win. They’ve understood that a win, unlike a fight, is the product of reaching out to both sides, and working in a bipartisan way to find a solution. A win is the product of compromise, thoughtful policy, and a genuine desire to find the answer to a complex set of issues.
We had such a situation – and a bipartisan win – in the 2010 net neutrality rule. Unfortunately, this was undone by a court decision, facing us with the same situation a second time. Today, an Administration and an FCC that appeared headed toward another bipartisan win on net neutrality were driven instead to a partisan fight. The 3-2 FCC vote, along party lines, for sweeping new regulation of the Internet, is a rejection of the compromise win and an embrace, however reluctant, of the political fight. It’s unfortunate that this single issue, more than any other, has over the course of ten years caused a divisive spirit to spread to an agency that has long sought unanimity on significant long term issues, and generally found it. A 5-0 decision doesn’t leave a lot of room for either side to continue the argument, while a 3-2 decision, particularly on issues of such broad scope, is an invitation to revisiting the decision, over and over and over.
Does anyone really think Washington needs yet another partisan fight? Particularly a fight around the Internet, one of the greatest engines of economic growth, investment, and innovation in history? At AT&T, we’ve supported open Internet principles since they were first enunciated, and we continue to abide by them strictly, and voluntarily, even today. We supported, and testified in favor of, Chairman Genachowski’s 2010 net neutrality regulations. And we thought the approach being taken by Chairman Wheeler in exploring a Section 706 regulatory framework was reasonable, and legally sustainable, as well. We have never argued there should be no regulation in this area, simply that there should be smart regulation. What doesn’t make sense, and has never made sense, is to take a regulatory framework developed for Ma Bell in the 1930s and make her great grandchildren, with technologies and options undreamed of eighty years ago, live under it.
Instead of a clear set of rules moving forward, with a broad set of agreement behind them, we once again face the uncertainty of litigation, and the very real potential of having to start over – again – in the future. Partisan decisions taken on 3-2 votes can be undone on similarly partisan 3-2 votes only two years hence. And FCC decisions made without clear authorization by Congress (and who can honestly argue Congress intended this?) can be undone quickly by Congress or the courts. This may suit partisans who lust for issues of political division, but it isn’t healthy for the Internet ecosystem, for the economy, or for our political system. And, followed to its logical conclusion, this will do long-term damage to the FCC as well.
For our part, we will continue to seek a consensus solution, and hopefully bipartisan legislation, even if we are the last voice seeking agreement rather than division. And we will hope that other voices of reason will emerge, voices who recognize that animosity, exaggeration, demonization and fear-mongering are not a basis on which to make wise national policies.