The North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect 1 January 1994, a full two years before President Bill Clinton would sign the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and almost a decade before law school professor Tim Wu would pen the essay that set the concept of net neutrality into motion. It doesn’t come to me as a surprise that issues such as equal treatment of data over networks or the privacy of subscriber data were not huge ones back then.
From the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, the policy priorities included universal service and promoting competition in local markets while increasing telephone subscribership among low income, black, and Hispanic communities. Talking about the internet in the mid-1990s was synonymous to Natasha Romanova whispering to Steve Rogers about the existence of The Winter Soldier, something that may be real, but we just don’t know.
But by 1995, the whispers were becoming clearer to industry and Congress that the internet and high-speed broadband access to an increasingly global inter-network of computers provided investment opportunities for capital while increasing the speed and efficiency in moving the most important resource: information.
Over the last fifteen years, American telecommunications markets have had to contend with the back and forth threats of an additional regulatory overlay in the form of net neutrality rules. Attempts to codify net neutrality, the principle that broadband access providers should be transparent about their management practices while not discriminating against non-affiliated traffic, and allowing subscribers to access content of their choice, has become very politicized over the past three years. In 2015, a Democrat-led Federal Communications Commission passed net neutrality rules that were repealed two years later by the current Republican-led Commission.
And while Democrats in the U.S. Senate were able to persuade enough Republicans to pass a resolution to repeal the Commission’s transparency rules and replace them with the 2015 rules, the likelihood of passage of the resolution by the U.S. House is impossible because it is currently controlled by the GOP.
The political reality is that subscriber concerns about accessing content of their choice as well as maintaining the privacy of the data that they buy and sell is important to maintaining the internet and broadband as attractive communications tools. The Trump administration has an opportunity to head off an international net neutrality debate by including language that encapsulates net neutrality principles while reiterating the importance of protecting privacy on both sides of the border with Canada and Mexico.
An additional benefit of putting privacy and net neutrality language in Chapter 13 is that it will force Congress’ hand during the ratification process. It would be inconsistent for the United States to approve language in a treaty that incorporates privacy protections and net neutrality principles for international data trade while not recognizing those principles in its national laws. This level of certainty in American and international law will provide a great benefit for investors.