FCC chair Wheeler relies on clairvoyance to police innovation

2 May 2014 by Steve Blum
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Survival in Washington means keeping a firm hand on your ball.

Earlier this week, I asked whether FCC chair Tom Wheeler is dumb enough to think we’re dumb enough to believe that network neutrality means something other than Internet service that doesn’t discriminate amongst content providers on the basis of who is writing the bigger check to your ISP. Wheeler’s answer appears to be a resounding yes.

In a new blog post, the freshman chairman confirmed that ISPs will be allowed to sell pay-for-play fast lanes to content and service companies, so long as it’s “commercially reasonable”, a vague term that guarantees nothing except mountains of billable hours for lobbyists and lawyers. Amazingly, he says that he’ll be ready to pounce on “big companies” if they hold back innovators…

If we get to a situation where arrival of the “next Google” or the “next Amazon” is being delayed or deterred, we will act as necessary using the full panoply of our authority.

What do you suppose would have happened back in the day if Jeff Bezos or Sergey Brin or Larry Page had rocked up to the FCC and complained that they were being strangled by incumbents? They would have been told “that’s an interesting shade of blue you’re turning, young man. Good luck with that”. Back then, they were just three guys with goofy ideas who would have been eaten alive by a high-powered cable or telecoms lobbyist with feigned gravitas and a bag full of campaign cash. Like Tom Wheeler.

Personally, I don’t think that Washington can or should write rules in the name of encouraging innovation. A magic crystal ball is no match for the packs of beltway bandits who attack anything that threatens to disrupt established interests. So even barebones network neutrality rules make me nervous. But a regulatory regime that puts the FCC, or any other agency, in the position of actively managing innovation scares the hell out of me.