Freedom Watch

Fighting Off Power Grabs

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is threatening to intervene in the maintenance of the very architecture of the Internet.

By From the May 2011 issue

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Much of the Washington debate over health care reform has revealed that when health care decisions are shifted to Washington's bureaucracies, the consumer's freedom to tend to his own care is eroded. As the Department of Health and Human Services asserts a manifest destiny over health care choices in America, President Obama's Federal Communication Commission (FCC) is assigning itself similarly dubious authority over anyone who wants to innovate online. Much as HHS believes its regulations are needed to protect Americans from insurance companies, the FCC has set up a false choice between consumers and allegedly monopolistic high tech providers. Congress must defend the online entrepreneur, job creator, and consumer with a vigor equal to that spent protecting the doctor-patient relationship.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is threatening to intervene in the maintenance of the very architecture of the Internet, the wireless communication of every American, and even companies' pricing for the privilege of constant connectivity. The consequence of these three bureaucratic power-grabs is a dispirited innovator, a consumer deprived of choice, and a free enterprise system hobbled by federal bureaucrats convinced they know what is best for all of us.

"Net neutrality" is the most prominent of these power-grabs. According to the FCC, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can't resist engaging in such bad behaviors as slowing a competitor's sites to direct traffic to their own profit centers. Though they cannot cite a single case where federal intervention was needed to avert this behavior, the FCC proposes to take over the very Internet architecture that ISPs invest 60 billion job-creating dollars a year developing. It will insist that no information can be prioritized by the ISPs, transferring that power to federal authorities instead. ISPs are left asking obvious questions. Why invest in making a network more efficient, why collaborate to build new technologies, if ISPs will not be allowed to profit from them? In rushing to defend a consumer who has no need of its help, the FCC threatens to cripple the greatest platform for the expansion of freedom and prosperity since Jefferson put quill to parchment.

FCC arguments over data roaming are equally spurious. Wireless companies spend billions to build efficient international communications networks. If I travel beyond my carrier's service area and still want to make a call, my carrier must use the infrastructure built out by another company. The second company is due compensation for the use of its network. The FCC doesn't believe that market forces are adequate to find a fair equilibrium. It intends to intervene, depriving the entrepreneur of the ability to profit from his investment. Once again, the consumer will be the poorer for big brother's misguided advocacy on his behalf.

The unelected bureaucrats at the FCC have also taken it upon themselves to intervene in cell phone billing. It seems that one in six Americans experience a new phenomenon of the information age: "bill shock," those heart palpitations resulting from higher-than-expected wireless bills. The Today show recently profiled a young couple who were stunned to learn that international charges ran up their bill. Never mind that the couple were able to complain and get the bill reduced. Never mind that most of us can check our balance at any time, night or day. According to Chairman Genachowski, this is not enough. Now the FCC proposes to intervene with all the blunt force of federal regulation to make your wireless carrier warn you about your bill. Visions of the bespectacled Verizon guy spouting, "Can you pay me now?" come to mind.

The cost of supplanting the consumer's common sense with federal authority is high. It will slow innovation and hobble the new creative economy -- a force that has enhanced both our prosperity and our freedom. The House has begun pushing back against the FCC's overreach. In March we began to turn back the "net neutrality" order, and my legislation to forever restrict the FCC from Internet regulation is gaining support. Our next move may need to clarify that while the FCC's regulatory jurisdiction rests on the authority granted by Congress, not an arrogant assumption that, like the Department of Health and Human Services, Washington always has the consumers' best interest at heart.

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About the Author

Marsha Blackburn is a Republican U.S. Representative from Tennessee.