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Reality Check for Carly Fiorina on Open Internet Policy

In a recent op-ed, the tech exec and potential presidential candidate displays an alarming lack of policy depth.

NBC News

Some technology policy experts have decried recently that national discussions around network neutrality or Open Internet access reflect a lack of policy depth. Fortunately, these elitist concerns about citizen participation in public policy decisions can be dismissed as patronizing at best.

Meanwhile, in an April 7 CNN opinion article by tech CEO Carly Fiorina, entitled “Obama’s Net Neutrality Failure,” we find an alarming lack of policy depth for an industry executive that misleads readers.

In her opinion piece, Fiorina echoes outdated, inaccurate claims about the Federal Communications Commission’s new rules. Repeating these false claims shows that she is either not familiar with the long history of the Open Internet debate, or just brazen enough to carelessly perpetuate falsehoods. Let’s look at three examples of Fiorina’s inaccuracies.

First, Fiorina misunderstands who the FCC rules apply to. She claims that the Communications Act of 1934 (the legal authority for the rules) “gives the Federal Communications Commission nearly unlimited authority to micromanage how, when and where Internet companies innovate.” Fiorina suggests that startup competitors to Google and Netflix will have to maneuver a gauntlet of bureaucracy to innovate online. This demonstrates fundamental confusion about rules designed to make sure that network operators continue to allow “innovation without permission” by online services both large and small, especially startups.

The FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order clearly states that it applies only to “broadband Internet access services” (BIAS). It’s your local cable and telecom Internet access companies that provide “BIAS,” not your favorite online “Internet companies” like eBay or Wikipedia. Internet access providers sell you two-way access to and from the Internet, transmitting your every email, tweet and search request to the Internet and delivering content you choose. Companies like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T that have blocked or slowed websites and expressed interest in selling paid prioritization are the ones to whom the Open Internet rules apply. Only those companies have gatekeeper control over our access to the Internet.

Second, Fiorina claims that the new rules do not solve the main problem, citing concerns about the slowing of Netflix video streaming. She should know that while the Netflix complaints were real, they resulted from anticompetitive discrimination at Internet interconnection points. Fiorina attempts to score cheap political points by claiming that a failure to solve business-to-business interconnection disputes is a failure of the new rules.

In fact, if the FCC had resolved the interconnection questions, its decision would have been even more far reaching. Fiorina perhaps assumes that average Americans will not know the difference between consumer-facing net neutrality and interconnection disputes. The list of experts and companies that support the FCC action and addressing interconnection in the future includes content providers, long-haul backbone network operators and public interest groups. Preying on interested Americans who don’t have a background in network management or broadband policy is a cynical ploy.

As Fiorina indicates, the FCC’s order points a way forward on solving interconnection through FCC adjudication of complaints from companies. The key is that interconnection disputes can affect the quality of the two-way Internet access service that local subscribers have already bought and paid for, and the FCC will want to discourage degradation of their service.

Third, Fiorina repeats the scare tactic that consumer prices will increase under Title II. She claims that “the FCC now has a statutory obligation to make sure that all Internet service providers … contribute to the Universal Service Fund.” She ignores the fact that the FCC explicitly established a waiver (or “forbearance”) from the relevant section of Title II. When the rules take effect, new fees on Internet bills are not required. For years, a federal/state joint board has been separately considering the question of whether subsidies for broadband network deployment in rural areas should be funded by both telephone and Internet providers. The Open Internet action does not prejudge that important issue.

The good news is that the FCC was very careful in structuring its Open Internet rules. The FCC reclassified broadband as a telecommunications service, and then decided that more than two dozen preexisting legal provisions were unnecessary for broadband. This is similar to the approach that has allowed competition and innovation in mobile phone service to thrive for the past 20 years.

Americans have varying degrees of knowledge and expertise on tech policy, but they all know they need reliable Open Internet access to be the policy outcome. We applaud public comment at any level of sophistication about keeping the Internet open and preventing interference and service degradation by network operators.

Policymakers and industry executives have a higher standard. We expect leaders to consider competing concerns in the development of responsible public policy. Fiorina and others who distort the facts are failing to lead constructively. Fortunately, we have an expert agency where commissioners take this responsibility seriously. Their strong net neutrality protections finally meet public expectations after over a decade of advocacy and debate.

Chris Lewis is vice president for government affairs at Public Knowledge, a nonprofit public interest organization, and previously served on staff at the Federal Communications Commission from 2009-2012. Reach him @publicknowledge. Cathy Sloan is a telecommunications lawyer, and was vice president for government relations at the Computer and Communications Industry Association for the past eight years.

This article originally appeared on

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