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Derek Turner (MPP ‘06) on Net Neutrality

Derek Turner (MPP ‘06) began working on policy related to internet while a student at the Goldman School. For the past decade, he has been the research director for Free Press, a nonprofit organization specializing in media policy. He spoke us about his decades-long experience advocating for Net Neutrality and the FCC’s recent decision to approve it.

Your interest in this issue began as an internship and an APA. How did that experience launch you into this arena?

I was fortunate enough to land an internship with Free Press, one of the few nonprofits working on media policy. During the summer of 2005, I prepared a formal analysis of the US broadband market, looking at how US policy impacted consumer issues. While I was working on that, the FCC completed its moves to classify all broadband as “information services,” removing any legal obligations for ISPs to treat traffic in a nondiscriminatory manner. These events, plus bluster from the ISPs about how they planned to use their newfound powers, jumpstarted the policy and advocacy fight over Net Neutrality.

After my internship, I remained with Free Press as a part-time consultant, and they were my client for my APA, for which I did an analysis on policy options to modernize the federal Universal Service Fund to include broadband.

Why is Net Neutrality such a critical issue?

Net Neutrality embodies the common-law principle of common carriage. This timeless principle has applied to carriers in all forms for centuries, because nondiscriminatory carriage is critical to the functioning of society. People’s ability to communicate free from undue discrimination is crucial to economic growth and our democracy. Indeed, Congress enshrined common carriage in the Communications Act, recognizing that the ability to have our speech carried free from undue discrimination is essential to our right to speak freely.

Your Internet service provider performs the function of a common carrier and shouldn’t be permitted to block or degrade your communications — especially given the poor state of competition in the US broadband market.

A decade is a long time—what is your role now with Free Press and what kinds of things have you been doing to advocate for net neutrality?

I’ve been Free Press' research director since graduating from GSPP. But over the years my work has expanded from research to include writing official filings to the FCC, writing Op-Eds and making appearances in the media, lobbying and testifying before Congress and the FCC, and working in coalition with others advocating for the same policies. My work on Net Neutrality has involved all of these and other activities. But since I'm an analyst at heart, I'm most proud of the data-intensive and policy-focused legal filings I've written for the FCC’s Net Neutrality proceeding.

Critics say that the FCC’s recent decision will create unnecessary bureaucracy and stifle innovation. How would you respond?

I learned at GSPP that it’s important to separate facts from rhetoric. The FCC’s reclassification of Internet access service providers as common carriers doesn’t amount to “regulating the Internet.” The access services are on-ramps to the Internet, not the Internet itself. These services exist in a market with steep entry barriers and little competition, and as such there are substantial incentives for ISPs to use their gatekeeper powers to rent-seek and otherwise create market failures. The concerns about unnecessary bureaucracy are misplaced since all of these companies operate in a regulated environment; it's just a matter of whether they have a modicum of obligations alongside the benefits they receive from regulation. The FCC has long favored market forces over regulation, and that’s not going to change for Internet access services. The FCC's actions will enable Internet users and edge companies to continue innovating without permission, which in turns will fuel demand for the ISPs’ services and their incentives to innovate.

This FCC decision is a big step—what's next for you and Free Press?

Policy victories in Washington are ephemeral. We will continue this fight in the courts and in Congress. And FCC rules are not self-executing. If an ISP violates Net Neutrality, we will navigate the complaint process on behalf of our 900,000 members. We’ll also continue to advocate for policies that increase competition in the broadband market so that consumers can drive market forces to preserve real Net Neutrality.