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The Next Role for Virginians in Promoting Internet Growth

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Virginia and Virginians have a special role in the history of the Internet and a special concern for its flourishing. You can have a “Virginia Internet C@pitallicense plate on your car; last year, the Washington Post suggested that Ashburn, VA was “the center of the Internet”, with 70% of the world’s Internet data passing through it and 5,000,000 square feet of data centers in Loudoun County alone. Silicon Valley may be more famous, but without Virginia, the backbone of the Internet would simply not exist.

It helped to have the Pentagon and the defense industries, but none of this happened by accident. Virginia fostered an entrepreneurial business and technology community that led to the many start-ups that bring jobs and innovation to the world from their Virginia hubs.

Not surprisingly, the policies that have fostered this growth and today’s open Internet have largely been bipartisan. Everyone favors good, clean, well-paying technology jobs and the companies that generate those jobs. This bipartisan consensus extended to the Federal Government as well. Back in the 1990s, during the Clinton Administration, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) raced to do all it could to get the Internet to as many Americans as possible and to keep it free from overly burdensome public utility regulation that then applied to telephone companies. Two decades later we see the results of bipartisan efforts in the form of the free, open, privately-networked Internet that we enjoy today. 

And equally unsurprisingly, anything that threatens this consensus and the Internet on which our economy increasingly depends should be of first importance to Virginia.

 Unfortunately, the FCC’s new “net neutrality” rules attempt to promote an open Internet by imposing regulations designed for public utilities, such as gas and water companies. Imposing these so called “Title II” regulations on the Internet introduces unnecessary uncertainty into the broadband marketplace, and it could threaten the future investment that is essential to promoting an innovative, growing, and vibrant Internet-centric economy.

By treating the competitive multi-media Internet as a 20th Century “common carrier”, the FCC’s decision opens the door to Internet regulations modeled on the rules that were developed for the Ma Bell telephone monopoly and for other monopolies that offered a single service and were regulated in virtually all aspects of their businesses. Under the light touch regulation that has applied to the Internet since the Clinton era, investment across the information ecosystem has produced an Internet economy that is the envy of the world. A regulatory environment welcoming to investment was at the foundation of that success, and it is now threatened.

 It is not shocking that some original proponents of “Title II” public utility regulation, such as Netflix, now believe that the regulations may have gone too far. After all, the continued growth of broadband, which Title II regulations threaten, is essential to the business growth of companies like Netflix.

We can all agree that preserving and maintaining an Open Internet is vital to the nation’s and Virginia’s economy, but there is a far better way to protect network neutrality principles than reverting to regulations designed for the era of rotary phones.

Fortunately, Washington decision makers can take an alternative path. In 2010, the FCC proposed an earlier version of net neutrality regulations which, after years of litigation, were invalidated in court for lack of statutory authority to put them in place. Efforts in Congress are now underway to codify the FCC’s 2010 net neutrality principles, return to light-touch regulation of the Internet and create legal permanence on how it should be governed for the future.

It’s my hope that this legislative effort will be the basis for a bipartisan solution in favor of preserving both Internet openness and the light touch regulation that under different Administrations has promoted the exponential growth of the Internet ecosystem by letting entrepreneurs do what they do best. Virginia and Virginians need to take the lead in promoting this solution, for the sake of an industry that has come to define our “New Dominion.”

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