Commentary

House Republicans See No Need For New Broadband Regulations

The head of the House Judiciary Committee came out swinging today against new net neutrality regulations.

“It is my belief that the Internet has flourished precisely because it is a deregulated market,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said at a two-hour hearing addressing net neutrality. Specifically, the hearing focused on whether the Internet should be regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, or policed by antitrust officials.

Net neutrality principles generally require broadband providers to deliver all traffic without discrimination based on content.

Web companies, investors, small businesses and consumer advocates are flooding the Federal Communications Commission with pleas for those types of rules. They argue that neutrality regulations will guarantee that start-ups, nonprofits and other content creators can reach consumers without interference from Internet service providers.

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Advocates say neutrality rules are especially needed because most consumers don't have a lot of options when it comes to Internet service providers: In many parts of the country, broadband is a duopoly -- meaning that people can only choose between their local cable company and telecom for high-speed Internet access.

But Goodlatte, like several other House Republicans, says problematic conduct by ISPs questions should be dealt with by antitrust officials, who have experience policing monopolies and duopolies.

“Vigorous application of the antitrust laws can prevent dominant Internet service providers from discriminating against competitors’ content or engaging in anticompetitive pricing practices,” he stated.

That view was shared by three of the four experts who testified at the hearing -- Federal Trade Commission member Joshua Wright, former FCC member Robert McDowell, and Stanford professor Morris Doyle.

McDowell, who voted against net neutrality regulations when he served on the FCC, said he believes there's no need for the government to act at all. “At the outset, it is important to understand that nothing is broken that needs fixing,” he said in his written testimony.

“Instead of creating a regulatory Leviathan that will only grow to insatiably consume the entire Internet sector, policymakers should use their quivers full of existing laws that already deter and cure any anticompetitive conduct that results in consumer harm, if it should ever arise,” he added.

Tim Wu, the Columbia law professor who coined the term “net neutrality,” disagreed with the others. He argued that antitrust law can address commercial harms, but not necessarily the type of free-speech harms that net neutrality regulations aim to prevent.

Wu, who is running for office in New York, added that some of the most critical uses of the Internet aren't commercial. For instance, he told Congress, grandparents use the Web to view photos of their grandchildren online. “This might arguably be one of the highest values of the network, but it doesn’t show up in any calculation of gross domestic product,” he said in his written remarks.

He added that the FCC historically has been more sensitive to those “non-economic” values than the FTC. “Consequently,” he added, “conduct that might affect non-commercial uses of the Internet might not be easy for the Trade Commission to take cognition of, because of its focus on anticompetitive practices and consumer deception.”

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