First, I wrote you last month expressing my opposition to a provision in the initial House tax bill that counted tuition waivers for graduate students as taxable income. As this provision was removed in the final bill that passed Congress, I wanted to thank you for any support you lent in the removal of this provision.
Second — the crux of why I am writing — is to urge you to work quickly to preserve net neutrality after the FCC’s repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order which provided a regulatory framework for insuring that internet providers do not unfairly favor or block web traffic. With the FCC’s change in policy, it is my understanding that the basic tenets and protections of net neutrality will be best preserved and guaranteed through federal legislation. Representative Blackburn’s proposal (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/12/19/this-gop-net-neutrality-bill-aims-to-replace-some-but-not-all-of-the-fccs-rules/) is a good start, as it would ban both the blocking and slowing of websites. However, I would note that the current version of this bill does not ban providers from selling “fast lanes” to specific websites willing to pay a fee — this was previously disallowed under FCC rules. Therefore, I encourage you to advocate for the addition of some reasonable rules around how and when these “fast lanes” can be sold, as “fast lanes” will inevitably put start-ups and small innovators that cannot pay for this preferred service at a disadvantage.
Finally, I am angry that the recent FCC’s decision to repeal the 2015 Open Internet Order was based partially on the premise that broadband investment declined from 2015 to 2016 because of the 2015 regulations, which the FCC Chair called “heavy-handed.” (The data behind this is detailed in the FCC’s annual report on the competitiveness of the wireless industry: http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2017/db0927/FCC-17-126A1.pdf.) I am hoping you — as a trained economist — can join me in refuting this ridiculous assertion. Pointing out the slight drop in investment from 2015 in 2016 and then arguing this drop must have occurred due to the change in regulations is quite a leap in logic. As any economist worth his or her salt knows, correlation does not imply causation. Before leaping to conclusions, one must ask, are there other factors at play? For instance, could this drop be due to the fact that investment in broadband technologies may be cyclical, as providers move between generations of technology, i.e. between 3G and 4G (https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2017/09/in-anti-net-neutrality-push-fcc-downplays-data-that-contradicts-narrative/)? Also, do we have a sufficient dataset? Wouldn’t any careful analysis look at overall trends in data prior to the imposition of the 2015 regulations to see if blips are expected or normal? Once you include this data, you would notice that between 2013 and 2015, before the net neutrality rules were in place, there was also a drop in broadband investment (investment was $33.1 billion in 2013 compared to $30.9 billion in 2015, http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2017/db0927/FCC-17-126A3.pdf). Shouldn’t that fact be considered before assigning causation to the regulations? Finally, should the FCC ignore the claims of the major telecom companies themselves when they insisted to their investors that the net neutrality rules the FCC enacted in 2015 would not slow their investment in new broadband technology (https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2017/05/title-ii-hasnt-hurt-network-investment-according-to-the-isps-themselves/)? As a former professor of economics, I am sure you would have sternly corrected any student that came to you with the “analysis” the FCC has presented to the American public as “proof” that the 2015 Open Internet Order caused investment in broadband to decrease.
Aside from the fact that a major reason for the change in FCC rules was sold to the American public based on a comically faulty economic analysis, I could buy the argument that the FCC’s current framework for insuring net neutrality for consumers is overly burdensome and out-of-date, given that it relies on the classification of internet providers as utilities under Title II of the Communications Act, which was designed to regulate 1930’s era telecoms. If that is the case, then fine. Let’s create or change the law to create a more sensible approach for broadband in the 21st century that adequately protects consumers against the whims of gigantic corporations. (For the record, I do not think that the “promises” that these major providers have given not to change how they provide internet service after this recent change is sufficient.) Therefore, I encourage you to work with your colleagues in Congress to shore up legal protections for us in the wake of the FCC’s decision.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter, and I look forward to seeing you move forward productively on this issue that is so important not just to the day-to-day functioning of the American economy, but is also essential in insuring a vibrant democracy.