Thoughts on Net Neutrality Hearings in Congress

On Wednesday I attended two hearings on Capitol Hill, one in the House, and another in the Senate. The expert witnesses were lawyers, entrepreneurs, lobbyists, and researchers and expressed a range of views spanning from “Please, God save us from the tyranny of Comcast” to “Net Neutrality is the Obamacare of the Internet.” I’m on the record as a “Please, God save us” person, and by that I mean we need a robust, powerful FCC to ensure net neutrality. Most obviously, this means that blocking, throttling, and internet fast lanes aren’t good. And that regulators should have the foresight and flexibility to deal with novel forms of data discrimination.

Among the Democratic and Republican lawmakers, I saw mostly irreconcilable differences. The only thing both sides could agree on was the inane concept of an “open internet,” which is almost as worthless as saying they agreed on a democratic way of life. They wanted to sound earnest, though. I think I heard the word “bipartisan” almost as many times as I heard “innovation.” But I don’t want you to believe both parties are to blame. The Republicans in these hearings have an immense and irrational fear that sensible government rules will somehow halt interstate commerce.

The way these hearings are structured is basically one side asks their sympathetic expert witness a softball question and nods along aggressively. Like in a trial, you attempt to solicit a favorable answer out of your witness. And, through probing questions directed to your unsympathetic witness, you try to poke holes in the other side’s story. You work to make it look inconsistent or wrong or dangerous.

As you can imagine, this kind of highly structured debate prevents any real kind of conversation, like, say, the kind you’d find in a classroom. It encourages every witness and every line of questioning to exist in its own universe of understanding such that one person can say something that completely contradicts the other side and the audience is sort of left there to wonder what the hell is going on. This is especially true with technology issues. With those, the expertise of the witnesses far exceeds that of the lawmakers. (You can’t really prod a former FCC commissioner, even if you disagree with him, because he knows the intricacies of the issue with more fine detail. What would be better is if the expert witnesses could argue with each other.)

And the actual content of the hearings? …Mostly a rehearsal of the main arguments we’ve seen. (At The Vergeyou can find more of my own opinions.)

Republicans argue:

1) The FCC is a rogue, unaccountable agency
2) Title II regulation (treating ISPs as utilities) is a law unfit for our times
3) Strong net neutrality rules would chill investment and innovation

Democrats argue:

1) The FCC is an important watchdog
2) Title II regulation is the only meaningful way forward
3) Strong net neutrality rules would bolster competition and ensure consumer protection.

More Observations:

* Two people in the House hearing, Representative Eshoo and Michael Powell, a former FCC Commissioner, referred to Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson as “Mr. Etsy.”

* The concept of “digital redlining” was an interesting sub-theme, as was municipal broadband deployment (allowing cities to create their own networks to compete with ISPs).

* When it became apparent that the mic’s on the Democratic side weren’t working correctly, the Republican Chairman, Greg Walden, said: “It wasn’t an attempt to throttle.” This was a pretty good joke for a telecom hearing.

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