With substantial obfuscational aplomb, Craig Silliman, Verizon’s senior vice president of public policy and government relations, called for a “21st – century policy framework” that will “move away from large, technology-specific legislative set pieces and focus on a technology-agnostic policy framework that puts consumer-protection at its center.”
In other words, Verizon – no surprise – will not push for an overhaul of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, although it will encourage various government entities to develop a broad, albeit politically volatile and undefined “framework,” that has, as Silliman calls them, “four core objectives”: “Protect consumers. Encourage innovation. Encourage investment. Be technology-agnostic.”
Q: Where have we heard that before? A: Almost everywhere.
In a thoughtful and well-intentioned presentation Thursday to the Media Institute, Silliman made it clear that, “We can’t expect Congress to update communications laws at the pace of technological change.”
He emphasized that “a strategic view of policymaking starts by asking what objective we are trying to achieve, and then asking whether regulation is needed, why it is needed, and who is best placed to administer it.”
“We need to ensure that we do not let an increasingly outdated regulatory regime for the Internet ecosystem slow innovation and investment,” Silliman emphasized. “The 1996 Telecom Act succeeded in what it was designed to achieve, but almost two decades later it is leaving the FCC struggling to shoehorn Internet-era technologies into phone-era regulations.”
Predictably, Silliman said that he is “not suggesting that the answer is to abolish all regulation.” He then quickly turned to the politically amorphous underpinnings of his outlook: the “framework” that would “set broad guidelines for the Internet space, with a focus on consumer expectations for privacy, security, transparency and fair treatment.”
“There is a role for government, via an enforcement agency, which would use the multi-stakeholder process to develop guidelines for behavior and enforce them,” he added, citing examples involving the roles of the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau in a bilateral consumer protection processes.
His comments go into substantial detail, with timely examples, of the “core objectives” for his envisioned “framework.” Silliman cites, for example, the investment encouragement (e.g. Verizon’s multi-billion-dollar FiOS commitment after FCC “clarity” about regulation) and consumer protection (the global adoption of a “multi-stakeholder governance model.”)
Although Silliman’s remarks do not enunciate Verizon’s – or the telco industry’s – specific game plan for communications law overhaul in the immediate future, his outlook offers an important benchmark for policy analysts. In its increasingly competitive role vis-à-vis cable operators – as well as its collaborative deals – Verizon is on a sensitive track (to echo Silliman’s core analogy in his speech: the roots of today’s telecom regulation in the 130-year old regulation of railroad operations).
“We are only a few years into the possibilities enabled by broadband, mobility and cloud computing,” Silliman concluded. “The only certainty is that ten years from now we will look back in wonder at how far another decade will have carried us.”
And then, in a final plea that combined a government hands-off stance with a consumerist viewpoint, Silliman observed that “the Internet ecosystem has flourished so far because the participants focused on consumers and have responded quickly and constantly to breakthroughs in technology with yet more innovation and new investment.”
Those were just the right words for a communications industry luncheon. Now comes the reality of how Verizon’s verbiage will actually play out – and what role Verizon expects to have in creating that “framework.”
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