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Debunking the Rewrite of Internet Privatization History

To help the neutralism movement de-privatize the Internet and transform broadband providers into quasi-public-utilities, some attempt to rewrite the long and very bipartisan history of Internet privatization as a partisan history, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

  • One example of some rewriting of the Internet's bi-partisan privatization history was in today's Wall Street Journal article: "Fed Mulls Rules, Fees to Spur Net Access" which mischaracterized Internet privatization history in claiming the current FCC proposals:
    • "...represent a reversal from the Bush Administration..." when factually it represents a reversal of both Clinton and Bush Administrations' policies -- as I will explain in detail below; and 
    • "... would be returning to the policies the FCC adopted in the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act..." which incorrectly implies that the 1996 de-regulation rules for promoting voice competition to incumbent monopolies should be considered the same as the current proposed regulation of broadband Internet access in a competitive market.
  • To be fair, the Wall Street Journal is not the only observer to fall into the trap of re-writing Internet privatization history -- by repeating the history-re-write of net neutrality proponents and largely ignoring all the evidence that Internet privatization policy was exceptionally bi-partisan.

In 1995, during the Clinton Adminstration, with broad bipartisan support, the National Science Foundation privatized the Internet backbone by encouraging the decommissioning of the NSFNET and transferring Internet transport to three private sector backbones.

In 1996, Congress almost unanimously passed the 1996 Telecom Act and established U.S. Internet policy: " preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet... unfettered by Federal or State regulation."           

In 1997, President Clinton said in "The Framework for Global Electronic Commerce:" “For electronic commerce to flourish, the private sector must continue to lead. Innovation, expanded services, broader participation, and lower prices will arise in a market-driven arena, not in an environment that operates as a regulated industry.”

In 1999, Clinton-Gore Adminstration FCC Chairman William Kennard opposed open access regulation of broadband with broad bi-partisan support. FCC Chairman Kennard said in a public speech to other regulators: 

  • "It is easy to say that government should write a regulation, to say that as a broad statement of principle that a cable operator shall not discriminate against unaffiliated Internet service providers on the cable platform. It is quite another thing to write that rule, to make it real and then to enforce it. You have to define what discrimination means. You have to define the terms and conditions of access. You have issues of pricing that inevitably get drawn into these issues of nondiscrimination. You have to coalesce around a pricing model that makes sense so that you can ensure nondiscrimination. And then once you write all these rules, you have to have a means to enforce them in a meaningful way. I have been there. I have been there on the telephone side and it is more than a notion. So, if we have the hope of facilitating a market-based solution here, we should do it, because the alternative is to go to the telephone world, a world that we are trying to deregulate and just pick up this whole morass of regulation and dump it wholesale on the cable pipe. That is not good for America."

    As the evidence above proves, the privatization of the Internet and pursuit a light regulatory approach to broadband was originally a bipartisan-supported Clinton Administration and a FCC Chairman Kennard policy that the Bush Administration then continued.

    It is inaccurate and unhelpful for promulgating sound consensus-based public policy when proponents on any side of an issue attempt to rewrite history to promote their point of view.   


    If you are interested in understanding the genesis of the re-writing of the Internet's privatization history, consider the 2006 "net neutrality re-frame" put forth in George Lakoff's Thinking Points, Chapter 8, The Art of Arguments:


    "Thus, the argument for Net neutrality becomes an argument for government regulation in this form by the FCC.

    The issue is new, but we have seen the values, principles, general argument, and narrative forms before. The Internet is seen as a commons—part of the infrastructure for the common good developed through the common wealth (taxpayer money). The values are freedom (of access) and equality (of access). The government is seen as the protector of freedom and equality through regulation (via the FCC). Substitute “Internet” for “parks” or “clean water” or “telephones,” and the same argument applies—government should secure the equal and fair access to the commons.

    The villains are the broadband service providers, or BSPs (e.g., Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, AOL), who own the lines and control access. Their crime is the threat to freedom and equality for the sake of profit. The victims are the citizens using the Internet. The heroes are the companies of CBUI (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo), famous spokespeople like Lawrence Lessig, Vint Cerf, and the Internet community itself, especially the bloggers, who have catapulted this issue to national attention." [Bold emphasis added.]