Too Soon to Tell About FCC Rules

I had hoped to write a simple post giving thumbs up or down to yesterday’s FCC ‘net neutrality’ rule-making. Alas, I can’t, yet.

Let me explain. I judge their actions by applying the principle of countercyclical regulatory policy: In recessions, the government should refrain from imposing heavy-handed regulations on innovative, growing sectors. The goal is to keep the communications innovation ecosystem growing and healthy.

From that perspective, the three basic rules that the FCC approved are fine: Transparency, no blocking of legitimate websites, and no “unreasonable discrimination” by wired broadband.

The key here is the transparency provision, which gets little attention. If we look back at the wreckage of the financial boom and bust of the 2000s, the big problem was not financial innovation. Rather, the big mistake made by the financial regulators was not pushing for more information about the decisions being made by Wall Street. That would have enabled regulators to put up a stop sign before things got out of hand.

Learning from that bad example, an intelligently-enforced transparency provision for broadband providers—requiring them to release “accurate information regarding the network management practices, performance, and commercial terms of its broadband Internet access services”—would go an awfully long way to deterring abusive practices without interfering with innovation.

If the FCC had just stopped with its three rules, we could be heading for the best of all possible worlds …where the communications innovation ecosystem keeps growing, the providers earn enough profits to allow them to keep investing, but where transparency helps encourage them to be good stewards and not to be too greedy.

But not content to leave well enough alone, the FCC appears to have added a lot of extra verbiage to the order that muddies the waters,  to the point where I can’t even figure out what they are trying to achieve. I say ‘appears’ because all we have so far is excerpts from the text, rather than the full text itself.

If regulators can’t make rules that are clear and straightforward, it’s a sign they shouldn’t be doing it. I wait eagerly for the actual text of the order.

About Michael Mandel 127 Articles

Michael Mandel was BusinessWeek's chief economist from 1989-2009, where he helped direct the magazine's coverage of the domestic and global economies.

Since joining BusinessWeek in 1989, he has received multiple awards for his work, including being honored as one of the 100 top U.S. business journalists of the 20th century for his coverage of the New Economy. In 2006 Mandel was named "Best Economic Journalist" by the World Leadership Forum.

Mandel is the author of several books, including Rational Exuberance, The Coming Internet Depression, and The High Risk Society.

Mandel holds a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University.

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