**This piece first appeared in Washington Times on May 3, 2018.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently took the hot seat on Capitol Hill for two days of grilling following news about Cambridge Analytica’s use of stolen data to profile and target American voters. Facebook also faces criticism about its privacy policies and data collection.
And in a rare moment of bipartisanship, members on both sides of the Capitol and aisle agreed we need some sort of legislation to protect consumers online. That’s exactly right. Congress should act now on comprehensive legislation that protects internet privacy and ensures internet freedom by prohibiting blocking, throttling or unfair discrimination against user traffic by any internet company. It should also require better transparency and disclosure.
Chairman Marsha Blackburn and Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy have already introduced bills that get us part of the way there, but passing them this Congress could prove to be tough.
Indeed, much of the needed energy is instead being siphoned off by a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution designed to resurrect deceased agency rules. It would do nothing to protect user privacy, secure the internet from hacking or other abuses, or even really ensure long-term protection for net neutrality. Instead, the CRA would simply reinstate temporarily the 2015 net neutrality rules that were repealed last year, and return the entire issue to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) where it faces a highly uncertain future.
To be clear, most everyone — including broadband providers — agrees on the basic rules of the road we need to keep the internet open and free. But there are a few big outstanding issues such as how to address network differentiation — what is sometimes pejoratively called “paid prioritization” — and what “neutrality” rules should apply to companies like Facebook and Google.
In reality, the issues are not that tough. Some longtime advocates want no allowances for any kind of fast lane, but nearly everyone that studies this issue closely takes the “engineering view” that the internet already prioritizes some traffic for valid reasons and that practice should be continued when in the public interest and with pro-competition guardrails.
Vital applications like automated vehicle technologies, highly sensitive internet of things sensors, or large-scale multi-participant virtual environments (whether it’s an online classroom serving rural communities or a remote family reunion bringing distant relatives together) may require heightened stability, reliability or speed.
And on the platform side, we are only just now coming to understand the unique political, cultural and economic vulnerabilities that large social media environments create. Business models built on data mining and viral clicks are great at providing free and low-cost web services, but have also raised real concerns, including the spread of fake news. There are a number of useful proposals on the table, but finding the right balance here will require members of Congress to lay down their partisan arms and enact reform.
Unfortunately, while Congress could and should tackle these complex but solvable issues in a thoughtful way, the only real action right now is on a CRA that would take us a step back and return the issue to the FCC, whose composition and policies naturally change with each new administration. Consumers and businesses deserve more consistency and certainty on this critically important topic. Unfortunately, with this issue’s increased visibility leading up to the midterms, thoughtful debate requires substantial political courage.
We shouldn’t have to wait — and with elections just around the corner that could be vulnerable — we probably can’t afford to. Congress must step up to the plate to restore confidence in the internet and digital economy. To do this, it should come together and pass a comprehensive bill that everyone can agree on rather than once again kick the can down the road.
Congressional leaders must listen to the engineers working to make today’s networks faster and more efficient above all others. We must balance the need for an open competitive internet with the engineering reality that different types of traffic have different transmission requirements. Legislators must restore waning consumer confidence in the internet by setting clear rules about the use of privacy data, the right way to prevent and police abuses of social media platforms, and to ensure more transparency in advertising and algorithms that determines so much of what drives digital commerce today.
We need to start thinking holistically about protecting consumers and protecting the internet ecosystem itself, and let the problem solvers take over.