Gipper’s Telecom Policy Approach Is Sorely Needed Today

Published May 31, 2016

On February 6, President Ronald Reagan joined the centenarian club of great American presidents. Some would quibble over the modifier “great,” but from a telecom policy perspective, at least, Reagan was the man for his times—and ours.

Lawsuits and proposed legislation galore have arisen in the wake of the Federal Communications Commission’s December adoption of net neutrality regulations and last month’s imposition of ridiculous net neutrality mandates on Comcast and NBC Universal as a condition for approving their merger.

None of these shenanigans would’ve happened with the Gipper in office.

Reagan never would have appointed someone like Julius Genachowski to chair the FCC. Genachowski is a former Harvard Law School buddy of our current president, and he shares with Obama an unabashed enthusiasm for government intrusion into the economy and individual choices.

In two years—and counting—of Genachowski’s leadership, the FCC has succeeded in roiling the Internet and telecommunications industry with uncertainty; discouraged investment in infrastructure buildout and innovations; performed untold damage to a sputtering U.S. economy; destroyed at least tens of thousands of jobs and rendered unnecessary tens of thousands more; and distracted lawmakers and the judiciary now forced to undo its mischief.

Government net neutrality mandates place onerous burdens on the businesses responsible for building the Internet, stifling the creativity and innovation that have rendered it the technological wonder we enjoy today. And Genachowski and his fellow Democrats at the FCC—Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn—aren’t content to stop there.

Instead, they continue to tinker with Internet and telecommunication regulations to create Rube Goldberg policies the majority of Americans have said they don’t want and clearly don’t need.

Reagan would have let the Justice Department go ahead and approve the merger, and he would have told the FCC to jump in a lake if it tried to interfere. He never would have allowed Genachowski and his two fellow FCC thugs to hold a merger hostage for more than a year to exact unnecessary and unwarranted concessions.

Reagan never would have let the FCC impose job-killing and economically unsound mandates on the Internet industry. A short list of Reagan’s accomplishments while in office makes this clear.

In 1984, Reagan deregulated the cable television industry. Since then, viewer choices have increased exponentially. “I want my MTV” was a familiar catchphrase then, but now anyone can tune into the hot-tub antics of Snookie and The Situation. Sure, that’s not exactly a contemporary equivalent of Masterpiece Theatre, but the more intellectually inclined can get that as well. And thanks to Reagan’s deregulatory approach I’ve been able to watch my favorite cable channel, Turner Classic Movies, religiously and unfettered since 1994.

Similarly, deregulation of the telecommunications industry in 1983 opened the doors for the amazing developments witnessed in subsequent years. A cell phone with Internet capabilities, for example, never could have happened without the prescient deregulation during Reagan’s administration.

Finally, Reagan possessed the wisdom to tell Congress in 1987 that the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” was anything but fair; instead, he noted, it represents an unconstitutional attempt to control media content. “This type of content-based regulation by the Federal Government is, in my judgment, antagonistic to the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment,” he wrote in his veto.

Reagan added: “History has shown that the dangers of an overly timid or biased press cannot be averted through bureaucratic regulation, but only through the freedom and competition that the First Amendment sought to guarantee.”

Quibble if you want, Reagan detractors, but in information technology and telecommunications policy the Gipper made a stupendous difference that benefits all of us today. That’s one heckuva legacy, and one I continue to admire. Just imagine how much better things could be if we returned to the wise and truly liberating principles he stood for.

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s InfoTech & Telecom News.