Spoiler alert: regardless of how the net neutrality debate unfolds at the Federal Communications Commission, we’re headed back to where we were at the start of this fiasco, prolonging the agony of ordinary people, including developers, who rely on a stable and healthy internet for their jobs. Do we need rules? Yes. Do we need rules that change every four years? Please, please no. We need sensible, long-term solutions so everyone knows what rules to play by now and 10 years from now.
For those that remember the pre-net neutrality days, the internet was doing just fine. Apps were being developed, websites launched and once in a while, a startup made it big. The FCC was on the sidelines, watching the big telecom players it regulated build out better and faster networks. But no one trusts giant corporations, and regulators live to regulate, and so the FCC, which isn’t elected and isn’t accountable to voters, decided to extend its reach and protect the internet from itself. They coined the term “net neutrality” and asked for public comment, knowing in advance where they’d take things.
Then the hysterics began.
And those hysterics are bound to repeat themselves. Every pundit and late-night comedian is going to rant as if there are real facts and predictable outcomes in play. But if living through this nightmare one more time would finally result in a stable set of Internet rules, developers would be happy. But the chances of that happening are slim. No matter what the FCC puts in place this time around, a future FCC will put it all back again. It’s like the film “Groundhog Day,” but with zombie hordes of D.C. lawyers.
What developers need is an internet where anyone that’s smart, hardworking, and a little lucky can win. Not a playing field that is rule-free, but one where the rules are known, and where rules are stable and consistent. The flaw in an FCC-driven internet is that the rules reflect the ideology of the sitting commissioners. When the referees change, the rules change too. That frustrates investors, stifles entrepreneurs and kills innovation.
But the fix is simple: Congress must establish a permanent set of net neutrality rules and remove the FCC from the game.
Everyone agrees that the internet must be free and open to all lawful traffic and internet providers must not be allowed to throttle, block, or harmfully discriminate against traffic online. We all agree that players should be transparent in their dealings. These principles have been the foundation of the vibrant growth and innovation that have defined the internet over the past two decades. They have ensured that internet providers don’t favor their own products and services or discriminate against competitors and that websites and applications rise and fall based on their merits, not censorship or manipulation of their traffic online.
For developers — companies that design and build the apps and programs that power the internet experience — this is especially important. They depend upon a stable internet environment that promotes innovation, investment and growth. And we need an internet — wired and wireless — that is open, competitive, stable, fast, and fair to all who use it.
This issue has bounced back and forth between the FCC and the courts for nearly a decade now. Twice, the courts have struck down the FCC’s efforts to police net neutrality. It has led the FCC to reinterpret depression era rules designed for the 1930s era monopoly telephone utility and attempt to apply them to today’s dynamic and hypercompetitive internet.
And now the FCC has launched a new proceeding to undo the flaws of this utility regulation while seeking ideas on how to protect net neutrality without it. This journey between the courts and the regulators and back again must stop. A set of rules, established by Congress, can easily put the issue of net neutrality to rest and support future investment and innovation in a strong, stable, and open internet.
Any other course would be, well, Groundhog Day.
Bruce Gustafson is a senior advisor for the Application Developers Alliance. He formerly headed the Washington, D.C., office of Ericsson, an international communications technology company.