Most issues look different from rural America, but that’s especially true of net neutrality.
No one doubts that net neutrality policies to keep the internet open and free for all users are vital. No internet provider or tech company should be allowed to block websites, censor or discriminate against viewpoints, manipulate cyberspace to shut out competition or otherwise interfere with our online experience.
But for many activists and tech advocates in high-connectivity urban areas, that’s all that net neutrality means. In rural America, however, effective net neutrality means much more.
Most fundamentally, net neutrality policies must also accelerate the deployment and build-out of new high speed networks to rural areas. A neutral internet doesn’t mean much if you don’t have network access in the first place; in Nebraska, more than 270,000 people have no options for wired, high-speed broadband, according to Broadband Now.
This is a key issue often overlooked in the debate. Policies that slow down the national effort to connect rural areas actually set net neutrality back. That may not be obvious in connected meccas like Silicon Valley or Washington, but it’s painfully true on the ground in places like Logan County, where access is spotty and incomplete.
And this is how the current debate in Congress over competing net neutrality proposals so frequently misses the point.
Activists have largely lined up behind a quick-fix proposal using a procedural shortcut called the Congressional Review Act. This approach would at least put in place strong FCC open-internet regulations on no blocking, throttling or discriminating online.
But, for rural America, the CRA approach unfortunately contains a massive poison pill imposing a whole separate set of invasive utility regulations called “Title II” that will drive away investment needed to bring high-speed networks to our communities.
Title II has been tried before, and the results have been a disaster for broadband build-out. A Phoenix Center study found it to drive down network investment by roughly $35 billion a year, while an economist pegged the loss at as much as 5.5 percent per year.
Fortunately, the CRA is not at all the only way to protect net neutrality. In fact, Congress can actually pass stronger, even more lasting and comprehensive net neutrality protections if it skips the flawed CRA approach entirely.
Instead of using the CRA shortcut, Congress simply needs to follow regular order, do its job, and pass real net neutrality legislation — a bill that permanently prevents all internet companies from manipulating, prioritizing, or discriminating online, while avoiding the damage to rural broadband investment and that a return to Title II would inflict.
This should not be difficult. There is broad bipartisan support for the principles of net neutrality, and more than three-quarters of Americans support the idea.
Many Democrats and Republicans in Congress have already announced their support for legislation. And the industries that would be affected have pledged to support a bill and say they are willing to accept new regulation in exchange for certainty and predictability.
A true net neutrality bill, as opposed to the shortcut CRA, would have other benefits. It makes net neutrality permanent and ensures that a future administration could not turn its back on these protections. The CRA approach, by contrast, leaves the issue at the FCC, where it can be changed any time the political winds shift.
Legislation also guarantees more comprehensive protection — reaching not just internet providers but the big social media and tech monopolies who shape so much of what we see and access online.
For net neutrality to be meaningful, it must reach all Americans. That means skipping the incomplete and anti-rural CRA approach and getting down to the hard, gritty but necessary work of Congress actually enacting a meaningful law.