The broadband Internet is an epochal technology. It is transforming the economy and changing the nature of everyday life. Its construction and development requires large quantities of resources, and its existence generates substantial innovation and economic growth.
What is the public sector’s best policy approach to this burgeoning phenomenon? Views differ across the political spectrum. The conservative vision of policy regarding the Internet is to leave it alone. Progressives find that view wanting, but what is their corresponding vision?
The answer is unclear. To some advocates, it involves an aggressive regulatory stance, whether in the form of “net neutrality,” “common carriage,” limitations on the sale of spectrum, or other policies that limit that latitude and operations of the companies that build and manage broadband networks. The most recent example of this type of advocacy is Susan Crawford’s Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. To others, this agenda seems excessive, but plays to an innate skepticism about large (and older) companies in general–particularly when contrasted to such new corporate Goliaths as Apple, Google, or Facebook, which have made their fortunes by existing on the Internet, rather than by providing it.
What should the progressive agenda be? Are our choices either to embrace this aggressive regulatory agenda or to accede to conservative laissez-faire? This essay argues that there is a third, and far more promising, option for such a progressive broadband policy agenda. It balances respect for the private investment that has built the nation’s broadband infrastructure with the need to realize the Internet’s full promise as a form of social infrastructure and a tool for individual empowerment. It turns away from problems we may reasonably fear but that simply do not exist–most importantly, the idea that the provision of broadband services is dominated by an anti-competitive “duopoly” that stifles the broad dissemination of content. And it forthrightly addresses the new ones–such as the need to create mechanisms to develop broadband as a ubiquitous social asset, to create institutions that do not second-guess its unpredictable and burgeoning growth, and to protect consumer privacy and users’ right to control the use of their personal information.
This paper consists of three sections. The first discusses what progressives should want from the Internet, the second examines the true state of competition in the broadband sector, and the third lays out a progressive agenda.