Just before Christmas, after Congress had extended tax rates and the halls of the congressional office buildings had emptied, after Air Force One was wheels-up for Hawaii, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did a remarkable thing. Four days before Christmas, it regulated the Internet.
Perhaps FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski thought no one would care - after all, relatively few members of Congress had educated themselves on the issue and raised objections. He could argue that the regulations themselves were innocuous. They are a compromise, the FCC could claim, between the telecommunications industry and federal bureaucrats. They were not nearly as onerous as they could have been.
And so, with a 3-2 vote by the short-sighted majority of commissioners, the federal government staked its regulatory claim to the freest and most productive sector of the American economy.
In recent decades, America’s industrial edge has been dulled by a cocktail of anti-competitive taxes, high labor costs and endless regulation. Conservatives must not let the same thing stifle the new creative economy.
Like well-intentioned, real-world regulations of the past, the FCC’s Net Neutrality will have real consequences for the consumer. Jobs will be lost, service will suffer, and technology will take longer to evolve if Internet service providers cede control to the government and are not managing the networks into which they collectively invest $60 billion.
Conservatives should find this move deeply troubling, and in part, we have ourselves to blame for letting it happen.
Too few have been engaged in technology issues. As a movement, we seem content to be dazzled and befuddled by the latest gizmos. We relish our children’s ability to use them but never ask how those gizmos and what they represent will challenge our principles in the century to come.
The FCC’s Net Neutrality power grab should be a rallying cry for conservatives to defend the principles of free markets, free enterprise, small government, property rights and the rule of law in an emerging arena. A new, creative economy is emerging in America. It already holds the key to our future prosperity and draws on our most valuable natural resource: the American inventor and entrepreneur.
It is this creative economy that has given birth to the plethora of tech-age consumption devices we have come to rely on every day. The iPads, iPhones, Blackberries, Droids and netbooks are our shopping carts in this great new online marketplace. It is the charge of conservatives to keep it free and functioning.
Our charge must extend beyond rolling back Net Neutrality, which House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton has rightly pledged to do. Our charge is to look at how our core values relate to the emerging and vital creative economy so we can be ready for future efforts to smother it with federal rules.
We also must take a fresh look at the sanctity of intellectual property as the commodity that will drive us into a new economic age. We must overcome our cultural habit of distinguishing between the theft of intellectual and material property because online, intellectual property is the only property there is. It means that in this Congress, we must take a new look at issues like patent reform, online privacy and identity security. It will mean ensuring that the virtual marketplace is a free and safe marketplace.
Conservative efforts to keep America free and prosperous in the next century may well take place in the context of tech policy debates. What once was considered a niche issue in public policy should be recognized for the vital stakes it encompasses. Conservatives have proved before to be stalwart and prescient defenders of free enterprise at home and abroad. We must not let our prescience fail us in the coming debates over the creative economy in which Washington will seek power, and we must say no.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn is a Republican from Tennessee. She will present a longer version of this article as a speech at the State of the Net conference today.