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Don't let states disrupt Trump administration's 'net neutrality' rollback

  • FCC's rollback of Title II net neutrality rules is a big step forward.
  • But online activists are proposing state-level legislation to reimpose some of the worst parts of Title II.
  • The FCC must establish a clear, nationwide regulatory framework that protects the free flow of information in cyber space.
Steve Forbes
David Orrell | CNBC
Steve Forbes

Imagine a crazy quilt-like patchwork of state regulations governing the internet – unquestionably, the most border-free platform ever known to humanity. It would be chaos, and a massive deterrent to investment, innovation, and growth.

If you think this is "fake news" from the deep and dark corners of the dark web, you will be surprised to learn it is where we could be headed if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not act to prevent this disaster by establishing a clear, nationwide regulatory framework that protects the free flow of information in cyber space.

President Donald J. Trump's savvy Chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, wisely wants to roll back Obama-era Title II net neutrality regulations. The 80-year-old so called Title II regulations were originally used to regulate railroads and then the Ma Bell telephone monopoly of the 1930's.

This rollback is a big step forward. It's almost laughable to believe Title II rules would be an effective North Star guiding the next chapter of internet advancements. The lunacy of applying old, rotary- dial telephone regulations on something so dynamic is self-evident. For the U.S. to remain at the forefront of high tech, we must return to the extremely effective framework for internet policy that was put in place under President Bill Clinton and continued by George W. Bush and allowed the Internet to flourish with a light-touch regulatory approach.

If Chairman Pai wants the Internet to continue to evolve, expand and flourish, he and his colleagues at the FCC have the crucial obligation to preemptively guard against online activists who are poised to unleash a torrent of harmful state-level legislation.

"If Chairman Pai wants the Internet to continue to evolve, expand and flourish, he and his colleagues at the FCC have the crucial obligation to preemptively guard against online activists who are poised to unleash a torrent of harmful state-level legislation."

Legislators in [nearly] 30 states - from coast to coast - introduced bills over the past year aiming to impose their own state-specific privacy requirements on ISPs. These proposed bills varied in the specifics and, if enacted, would have created an unworkable patchwork regulatory regime relating to the use of personal information. For example, in New York, one bill attempted to impose overly burdensome approval requirements for the collection and use of personal information by ISPs. This type of proposal fails to recognize how the Internet works today. Significantly, California's legislature also attempted to ban ISPs from offering discounts or other benefits to their customers if they were related to the customer making certain choices with regard to how their information is used. This would have deprived customers of opportunities.

Clearly, the floodgates could open when state legislators reconvene in January.

State-by-state internet regulations could potentially reinstate the most harmful parts of the Title II rules. But even worse, they would create a fetid swamp of confusion, a 50-state regulatory maze of overlapping and conflicting mandates. This would be a compliance disaster and cripple internet expansion and innovation. Businesses would be frozen in place, unable to operate, plan, or invest in an environment fraught with regulatory uncertainty.

When you stifle investment, innovation slows and job growth declines. In this cause-and-effect scenario, consumers and businesses would experience slower advancements that are essential to remaining competitive in a connected world. With groundbreaking next-generation broadband networks, or 5G, still in the final development stages, allowing states to interfere in internet policymaking would be disastrous.

That's why a nationwide framework for internet policy, established by the FCC, is so necessary. This framework must specifically prohibit a state-by-state patchwork of laws that would disrupt the past two decades of innovation that has positively impacted our lives and millions of American workers.

Just as it did in 2004 when it blocked states from individually regulating VOiP services, the FCC must establish a federal framework for internet policy when it moves to roll back the onerous Title II regulations. As the International Center for Law & Economics recently published, "The FCC has an established history of preempting state regulation to ensure that information services, including Internet access, are regulated exclusively at the federal level."

Chairman Pai has shown tremendous foresight, judgement and leadership on communications issues. He understands that finding the right regulatory balance is the only way to keep the digital revolution driving forward and to ensure that America remains the world's foremost leader in internet innovations.

Commentary by Steve Forbes, the chairman and CEO of Forbes Media. Follow him on Twitter @ SteveForbesCEO.

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