The millennials are the first generation that grew up in a world defined by the Internet. What the car was to a teen in the Fifties — a chance to see the world, explore, and connect with friends — the Internet is to the post-industrial age millennial. Today’s Internet is so widespread that many take for granted the fact that they can stream Netflix, hail an Uber, or chat with friends and family across the globe. The Internet and all these benefits emerged through a burst of innovation and entrepreneurship that transformed our daily lives. Yet as the Internet matures, it is becoming the target of special interests and overzealous regulators seeking to control the bounty that the Internet provides.
Few millennials are aware of the battles underway and the increasing threats to Internet freedom. The digital world is under assault on a number of fronts: through regulation, through legislation, and through special interests hoping to shape the Internet’s future to their advantage. FCC Chairman Wheeler’s Open Internet Order has spawned a new era that puts Internet regulation front and center on the agency’s agenda. At the same time, legislators have taken a keen interest in the Internet, with bills addressing a wide range of issues, from taxes to surveillance, from free speech to online gambling. And industry giants are in pitched battles over issues such as the struggle between digital streaming and the fight against online piracy. More often than not, these struggles over the Internet’s future all lead to a more regulated Internet, and that is not necessarily good news for consumers.
This is a far cry from the creative surge that made the Internet possible. Ever since going commercial in 1995, the Internet has been a world of permissionless innovation, a world where innovators and entrepreneurs were free to take risks and create new ways of doing things. This is the world of disruptive competition that brought us Amazon, eBay, Facebook, and Spotify. More of our lives moved online and new ways of doing business expanded consumer choice while connecting the world. The smallest business now had a global market and millennials were introduced to a world they could customize to their liking.
This is a far cry from today’s Internet. The world of permissionless innovation is fast becoming a world of mother-may-I innovation. From law enforcement seeking access to all private communications to demands that YouTube impose tougher sanctions on alleged infringers of copyright, the Internet is becoming a harsher place. Even writing a review criticizing a local restaurant can land you in hot water as more and more companies have turned to lawsuits to stop poor reviews on sites like Yelp.
And while many millennials joined in the cry for Internet freedom, few realize the scope of the FCC’s power grab in the name of net neutrality. The FCC has basically turned the Internet into a regulated utility, much like the phone company or power company. Talk about a mother-may-I world. The FCC is now in charge, and the only assurance we have is the FCC’s word that it doesn’t intend to overregulate the Internet. But already, in the name of net neutrality, the FCC is looking into complaints lodged against T-Mobile’s Binge On plan, which offers consumers unlimited video without any costs to their plan, as if that’s a bad thing. Around the world, things are even worse. In India, regulators are opposing Facebook’s zero-rating plan, which provides limited Internet access free of charge.
On other issues, the FCC is moving forward with a new regulation for set-top boxes at a time when cable providers are moving towards consumer-preferred apps to control their screens. This demonstrates the inherent dangers of putting regulators in charge of the web. The Internet is dynamic and evolves at an amazing speed. In just ten years the YouTube revolution has heralded a shift from text-based information to today’s world of video streaming. But bureaucracies are static in nature, making it hard to regulate a fast-paced world of technology. As a result, bureaucrats spend their time regulating yesterday’s problems, which hampers innovation in today’s Internet.
How can the Internet be saved? Organizations like Freedom Works advocate for keeping the digital world free. We’ve created a Digital Bill of Rights (link) to protect our freedoms online and ensure a thriving, innovative digital world:
First, the right of due process must be protected in the digital world. As in the real world, digital searches and seizures require a properly issued individual warrant.
Second, the Internet does not provide governments extraterritorial authority. The Founders were careful to provide limits on government reach, and those limits should remain intact in the digital world.
Third, the right to free speech must be protected online. This means keeping the cyber town square vibrant, banning censorship in all forms, whether it’s over-aggressive policies towards piracy, lawsuits against online reviews, or regulations against sites engaging in political speech.
Fourth, the federal government should not impose barriers that prevent or control Internet access. The Internet is becoming an important component in our lives, politically, socially, and economically. Controlling access threatens this vibrant community.
And finally, fifth, the right to secure data must not be compromised. E-commerce and privacy critically depend on secure data transfers and the government does not have the right to require backdoors to encryption that override these basic protections and expose us to potential hackers.
The most important fight, though, starts with American citizens even knowing that there’s a battle being waged. The media presents topics like the FCC’s Open Internet Order in favorable terms, ignoring the substantial new powers it gives the FCC to regulate the Internet. Much as with Obamacare, millennials would be wise to question the government’s ability to regulate such an important sector of the economy.