Congress should pass an open-Internet law NOW

While most political insiders are focused on fund-raising numbers, staffing announcements and what fast food candidates eat in Iowa and New Hampshire, there are real issues at stake this year.

Foreign policy, health care and income inequality are sure to be on the docket, but one issue not being discussed is the future of the open Internet and the rules the Federal Communications Commission is adopting.

Neon open sign
Guy Crittenden | Photographer's Choice RF | Getty Images

Although the "net neutrality" debate seemed settled by the recent FCC vote to apply Title II utility-style regulation to broadband, these rules could be overturned in court or changed by a simple majority of commissioners appointed to the FCC by the next president. The only way to lock in the rules consumers and businesses want is to pass legislation that can't be changed easily by the next presidential election. Rand Paul is looking to overturn the recent FCC action with proposed legislation before the primary votes are cast.

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Passing legislation feels like it would be a big lift. Democrats and Republicans are barely able to agree on the current day of the week, but the uncertainty of the political process might provide the leverage required to pass an open Internet bill. It could be the kind of compromise that Congress used to do more regularly and the kind we elect our representatives to make. Members of Congress who seek to protect consumers can make permanent in law prohibitions against slowing or throttling Internet speeds or creating fast lanes on the Internet (both of which were contained in the FCC's previous 2010 rules), while members focused more on innovation and economic growth can embrace the legislation's Internet protections that would not rely on imposing public utility regulation on the vibrant and growing broadband industry.

Public utility-like Title II rules, meant to regulate monopoly telephone service, could hamper innovation and flexibility in the most dynamic sector of the American economy. Currently, the FCC has promised to not apply many of these onerous rules; however, doing so is politically tricky and subject to legal challenge. A new statute would allow Congress to sidestep this troublesome issue and instead create a framework that advances today's broadband Internet and promotes cross-platform competition.

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So as competing interests align, a new statute can be a realistic possibility. It just takes political will and goodwill from both sides of the aisle. But Congress will need to hear from the people. All those who care about preserving an open Internet that maintains the flexibility to innovate and develop new products and services without entrepreneurs having to seek government permission should support a new law. A new law won't be perfect and will require both sides to make compromises, but it is a far better path to certainty and avoids legal and political wrangling that could tie advancement up for years, slowing down innovation and economic growth in the meantime.

Voters should ask Congress to pass an open Internet law before all attention turns to the presidential campaign. Otherwise, the next president will hold in her — or his — hands the future of the open Internet. Protecting such an important resource from the whims of shifting presidential political winds is among the most important things voters can do to keep the economy growing.

Commentary by Jamal Simmons, a political analyst and a co-chairman of the DC-based Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA). He has worked as an aide on multiple presidential campaigns. Follow him on Twitter @JamalSimmons.

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