Obama’s Plan to Regulate the Internet Risks Content Control

Phil Kerpen | February 17, 2015 | 10:17am EST
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President Obama congratulates Tom Wheeler, his nominee for the Federal Communications Commission, in the White House State Dining Room on May 1, 2013. (AP File photo)

Proponents of President Obama’s 332-page plan to regulate the Internet insist they oppose content control.  They even style themselves defenders of free speech.  But there is a very serious risk that changing the Internet from an unregulated free enterprise into a heavily-regulated public utility will lead over time to content control.

This risk is dismissed as a myth or even a “lie” by proponents of the president’s plan.  A few years ago an employee of Free Press – a group founded by a Marxist college professor who famously said “the ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists in the phone and cable companies and to divest them from control” – accused me of “a crackpot conspiracy” because I was concerned that economic regulation could lead to content control.

Those who live outside Obama’s cult of personality take a far more cautious view of today’s federal government.  A new poll by Rasmussen Reports found that 68 percent of registered voters are concerned that “if the FCC does gain regulatory control over the Internet it will lead to government efforts to control online content or promote a political agenda.”

Those concerns are historically well-founded because government regulators always have strong incentives to expand their own reach.  Indeed, the FCC’s move to regulate the Internet should itself be viewed as Exhibit A in the agency’s hunger to increase its power.

Public utility regulation will strongly depress private investment by as much as 20 percent – or about $45 billion – over five years according to a credible bipartisan analysis.  Taxpayers will almost certainly be forced to pay the difference via rapidly growing universal service fees, which are likely to be applied to Internet bills for the first time.  And then calls to regulate this publicly-funded network in the “public interest” will begin.

Consider the musings of Michael Copps, now a leading supporter of Obama’s plan and a board member at Free Press, a few years ago when he was an FCC commissioner.  He asked:

“Can you tell me that minority and women’s voices on the Internet are getting through to major audiences—really being heard—like the big corporate sites? Should we just take it for granted that the small ‘d’ democratic potential of new information technologies will somehow be magically realized without questions being raised about how they are designed and managed?”

It’s easy to see how questions like those will lead to answers that involve government controlling content to promote a political agenda.  Sensing this, Copps hedged: “And before going on, let me be clear about this—the open Internet discussion I want to see is not about content regulation,” before he added: “going forward, it’s also about getting a shot at actually being heard.”

Do we think the Internet should be designed and managed by federal regulators to make sure certain voices are being heard? Or do we want to continue the remarkably successful experiment with a free-market, privately owned, competitive Internet?  Which is the greater danger?

This is not a matter of mere conjecture.  The IRS targeted hundreds of tea party, pro-Israel, and pro-life groups – even asking one to disclose the contents of its prayers. And President Obama’s representatives at the Federal Election Commission are right now openly calling for regulations on political websites. How can we be sure an FCC with broad powers over the Internet will never use them to control content?

The self-appointed experts will continue to mock the two thirds of Americans who fear Obama’s plan to regulate the Internet will lead to content control.  But the majority is exactly right.

Phil Kerpen is head of American Commitment and a leading free-market policy analyst and advocate in Washington. Kerpen was the principal policy and legislative strategist at Americans for Prosperity for over five years.  He previously worked at the Free Enterprise Fund, the Club for Growth, and the Cato Institute.  Kerpen is also a nationally syndicated columnist, chairman of the Internet Freedom Coalition, and author of the 2011 book "Democracy Denied."

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