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Georgetown University Hosts Net Neutrality, Telecom Policy Forum

Today Georgetown University’s Center for Business and Public Policy hosted an event called: Title II, Net Neutrality, and the Struggle for Balance in Broadband Regulation: A Policy Forum. The forum, which featured distinguished guests like FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, President of US Telecom Jonathan Spalter, respected author Larry Downes, and distinguished economists like Georgetown’s own John Mayo, UMBC’s Timothy Brennan, and Harold Furchtgott-Roth.

Professor Mayo kicked off the 90-minute event with an explanation and subsequent interview of Commissioner O’Rielly. He first explained the current situation on the net neutrality debate and then asked O’Rielly if he could concisely summarize how exactly we got to this point, as well as any changes he would have made in hindsight.

The Commissioner gave a recount of the process of passing the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was the first major attempt in decades to massively overhaul the communications sector of the economy and, as he pointed out, did not mention the Internet very much. One of his biggest points about what he felt the bill should have done differently was that the language ought to have been more explicit, and the authority given to the FCC to handle telecom issues made more clear. As Mayo asked a follow-up question about whether or not the FCC has the tools needed to perform their duties efficiently, the Commissioner made his belief in a more rigid interpretation of the organization’s mission very clear. He reiterated that there should be no stretching of the bounds of the law when it came to the FCC’s regulatory duty.

A brief Q and A period followed their discussion in which the audience asked the Commissioner a handful of substantive questions, the most notable of which being his answers to two questions regarding comment periods on potential agency moves and what the phrase ‘net-neutrality’ actually means.

For the former, O’Rielly made it clear that substance is what matters most in a comment, and that name-calling and venting, even if they are valid ways of expressing concern, do little to tell the agency how it can improve. Any comment, regardless of the position it takes, is worth much more if it can thoroughly explain the criticism. As for the latter, he said that the net-neutrality conversation has shifted, and the meaning of the term has changed substantially into the belief that every packet of data, regardless of what it contains, must be given equal priority and treatment. O’Rielly went on to explain that this was, in general, not how things mechanically worked in the industry, and that there are some misunderstandings about what net neutrality means.

The rest of the responses can be found on the Georgetown CBPP website here.

As for the panel discussion, several major questions were raised to Professors Furchtgott-Roth, Brennan, and President Spalter, while Larry Downes acted as a moderator. After brief introductions, he asked the panelists about how, for the most part, the Internet has been given a very “light touch” when it comes to regulation, and how they believed this approach had affected the growth of the ballooning sector.

Professor Furchtgott-Roth and President Spalter tackled this, with the former explaining that, up until recently, the idea of regulating the Internet was not something even remotely taken seriously, and that the Internet from a regulatory stance didn’t even fall within any agency’s immediate jurisdiction. Spalter went on to contextualize this, calling the policy agenda at the time more deregulatory, and that the ‘light-touch’ approach helped the Internet flourish into what it has become today.

The final question was posed to the three about reform, and if any of them had any recommendations for policy improvements going forward. The consensus was that change was complicated, with Professor Furchtgott-Roth even saying that he didn’t believe it to be remotely probable. President Spalter stated that legislative reform was the goal and that more clear-cut, explicit rules were needed so that less interpretation from the agencies was allowed. As for Professor Brennan, he believed that the issues and solutions needed to be more economic in nature, rather than coming from a strictly legal background. In particular, he reiterated his opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision in Verizon v Trinko, explaining that these antitrust issues ought to be evaluated on more economic grounds, rather than strictly legal ones.

In any case, the discussion was yet another important one in the wake of the plethora of ongoing net-neutrality exchanges occurring right now. As the summer continues to blaze on in full swing, the debate is likely to further intensify.

Read more about the debate over Net Neutrality here.

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