NTIA Chief: Net Needs a Ref

by John Eggerton, Multichannel News

The Obama Administration's chief communications-policy adviser last week said the government should definitely be involved in sorting out the policy tension between competing Internet interests -- such as the dust-up over network neutrality.

In a speech to the Media Institute here, Assistant Commerce Secretary for Communications and Information Lawrence Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, said that a hands-off policy was the right approach in the Internet's infancy, but suggested such a regime was more suited to the last century.

He also took a shot at the "broadband ecosystem" metaphor that Federal Communications Commission officials, including chairman Julius Genachowski, have been using with increasing frequency.

"I answer the question whether the government should be involved with an emphatic 'yes,' " said Strickling, adding immediately that it does not have to be a heavy-handed regulator. Rather, the government that would be stepping in would need to take a different approach. He called the current regulatory regime "too slow, backward-looking and political" to be effective.

Despite the currency of the phrase "broadband ecosystem," Strickling argued, the Internet is not "a natural park or wilderness area that can be left to nature." He said he didn't believe that anyone in the Media Institute audience believed the government should leave the Internet alone.

Hands-off was the right policy when the Internet was first developed, said Strickling, but the new century has brought with it an Internet that has morphed into the "central nervous system" of the economy and society.

"The cacophony of human actors demands that there be rules or laws created to protect our interests," he said.

President Obama has long been a proponent of network-neutrality regulations.

Those interests include privacy, and protection of legal content, he said, as well as network neutrality. "You want to know you can make a transaction online without your credit-card information falling into the wrong hands," he said. "If you are a content owner, you want to be allowed to take action against users who infringe your copyright. ... If you are a network owner, you may be against net-neutrality rules. But that doesn't mean there aren't any rules, it just means the network owners get to create their own rules about whether and when to discriminate."

Where the Internet is concerned, Strickling suggested, the government needs to be a sort of pro-trust regulator, rather than an antitrust watchdog. He went so far as to propose changing the NTIA's name to the "National Trust the Internet Administration."

"In the absence of some level of government involvement, we risk losing the one thing the Internet must have, not just thrive, but survive, and that is the trust of all the actors on the Internet."

In addition to continuing to hand out broadband-stimulus grants -- he said March 15 would be the deadline for the second round of bids, no exceptions -- the NTIA will focus on Internet policy. The NTIA is not a regulator, but it is the White House's chief telecom policy adviser with a role of "preserving and building trust on the Internet" and "balancing out" those policy tensions, he said.

Such balancing efforts will include initiatives on privacy (including eventual policy recommendations), child online protection, cybersecutiry, and copyright protection.

article originally published at Multichannel News.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey