FCC and Internet broadband: Why a rush to regulate?

The FCC may vote Tuesday on rules for Internet broadband as a way to set its authority over this fast-changing industry. But it should let Congress take the lead on web issues such as net neutrality.

Like a shape-shifting, color-switching octopus, the Internet continues to transform itself as rapidly as it transforms the world. Many consumers, for instance, are now “cutting the cord” to old broadband providers such as cable TV in favor of wireless networks offering speedier access known as 4G.

With so much competition, freedom, and fluidity in the Web universe, it’s hard to believe the Federal Communications Commission may vote Tuesday on a largely secret proposal to impose tough strictures on the Internet.

Both a federal court and a large bipartisan group of US lawmakers warned the FCC last spring not to presume it has legal authority over the Internet. But that didn’t stop Chairman Julius Genachowski from proposing this month that the agency regulate the Web as if it were a communication cartel.

A vote may not take place if the chairman can’t get two other FCC commissioners on the five-member board to go along. Whatever happens, the FCC must send such proposals to Congress where they can be better measured against other ideas about the government’s role in the ever-changing Internet.

Mr. Genachowski’s proposal would punish Internet service providers such as Comcast if they block lawful content on their lines – a problem that doesn’t really exist right now – to favor one of its own content providers. It doesn’t go as far as his earlier proposal that would have imposed draconian “Net neutrality,” in which a cable or satellite provider must remain neutral on allowing any content on its Net service.

But the proposal is a start, a sort of regulation lite, that would set down a marker for FCC control over the Internet, perhaps to give government a strong role in its expansion.

The FCC chairman was able to win support from the traditional Internet providers by also including a proposal to allow them to start charging more for big users of broadband such as YouTube, or “paid prioritization.” Cellphone service providers are already moving toward tiered pricing plans for Internet data. The “wireline” carriers, which see companies like Netflix taking up as much as one-fifth of bandwidth for movies, want to move to a similar system.

But the issue isn’t really Net neutrality or pricing schemes, but when and how government should try to restrict a fast-moving technology that, if not done with care, could stifle competition, innovation, and access.

Ever since the early 1990s, when the Internet became open to the public, Congress has largely taken a hands-off approach. A presumption that the Internet is a settled industry, in which giant companies will not be broadsided by upstart competitors or by new technologies, is a dangerous arrogance for government to take. Even defining the Internet is still a work in progress.

Its very nature puts so much power in the hands of consumers to flee from abusive companies – or damage them – that traditional ideas about government protection must be questioned.

Consumers should be wary of any action at this point that tries to balance the competing interests of service providers and content providers.

A moving market like the Internet should not become an immovable target for FCC rulemaking.

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