Reboot the FCC
We’ll stifle the Skypes and YouTubes of the future if we don’t demolish the regulators that oversee our digital pipelines.
Economic growth requires innovation. Trouble is, Washington is practically designed to resist it. Built into the DNA of the most important agencies created to protect innovation, is an almost irresistible urge to protect the most powerful instead.
The FCC is a perfect example. Born in the 1930s, at a time when the utmost importance was put on stability, the agency has become the focal point for almost every important innovation in technology. It is the presumptive protector of the Internet, and the continued regulator of radio, TV and satellite communications. In the next decades, it could well become the default regulator for every new communications technology, including, and especially, fantastic new ways to use wireless technologies, which today carry television, radio, internet, and cellular phone signals through the air, and which may soon provide high-speed internet access on-the-go, something that Google cofounder Larry Page calls “wifi on steroids.”
If history is our guide, these new technologies are at risk, and with them, everything they make possible. With so much in its reach, the FCC has become the target of enormous campaigns for influence. Its commissioners are meant to be “expert” and “independent,” but they’ve never really been expert, and are now openly embracing the political role they play. Commissioners issue press releases touting their own personal policies. And lobbyists spend years getting close to members of this junior varsity Congress. Think about the storm around former FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s decision to relax media ownership rules, giving a green light to the concentration of newspapers and television stations into fewer and fewer hands. This is policy by committee, influenced by money and power, and with no one, not even the President, responsible for its failures.
The solution here is not tinkering. You can’t fix DNA. You have to bury it. President Obama should get Congress to shut down the FCC and similar vestigial regulators, which put stability and special interests above the public good. In their place, Congress should create something we could call the Innovation Environment Protection Agency (iEPA), charged with a simple founding mission: “minimal intervention to maximize innovation.” The iEPA’s core purpose would be to protect innovation from its two historical enemies—excessive government favors, and excessive private monopoly power.
Since the birth of the Republic, the U.S. government has been in the business of handing out “exclusive rights” (a.k.a., monopolies) in order to “promote progress” or enable new markets of communication. Patents and copyrights accomplish the first goal; giving away slices of the airwaves serves the second. No one doubts that these monopolies are sometimes necessary to stimulate innovation. Hollywood could not survive without a copyright system; privately funded drug development won’t happen without patents. But if history has taught us anything, it is that special interests—the Disneys and Pfizers of the world—have become very good at clambering for more and more monopoly rights. Copyrights last almost a century now, and patents regulate “anything under the sun that is made by man,” as the Supreme Court has put it. This is the story of endless bloat, with each round of new monopolies met with a gluttonous demand for more.