Robert McDowell: Champion of Liberty

March 21, 2013

by Adam Thierer
Technology Liberation Front

We learned today that Robert M. McDowell, who has served as a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission for almost seven years, will be leaving the agency shortly. I’m sad to hear it. Commissioner McDowell has been a great champion of freedom across the board, from traditional communications and media reform to cutting-edge Internet policy issues. On one issue after another, fans of liberty could count on Rob McDowell to perfectly articulate and defend the pro-freedom position on high-tech policy matters whenever and wherever he wrote or spoke.

I can’t even begin to list all the things we’ve written here over the years at the TLF about McDowell and his excellent body of work while he served at the FCC, but a quick custom search of this blog yields dozens of columns all gushing with praise for the seemingly endless string of outstanding speeches and statements that he made since joining the agency in 2006.  But I just want to highlight two of McDowell’s most eloquent speeches and strongly encourage you to go read or re-read them because they will inspire you to keep up the good fight to expand the sphere of liberty in this field:

Here a few choice passages from these amazing speeches:

from Technology and the Sovereignty of the Individual”:

To propel freedom’s momentum, policy makers should remember that, since their inception, the Internet and mobile connectivity have migrated further away from government control. As the result of longstanding international consensus, the Internet itself has become the greatest deregulatory success story of all time. To continue to promote freedom and prosperity, regulators should continue to rely on the “bottom up” nongovernmental Internet governance bodies that have a perfect record of keeping the ‘Net working and open. We must heed the advice of leaders like Neelie Kroes, who has consistently called on regulators to “avoid over-hasty regulatory intervention,” and steer clear of “unnecessary measures which may hinder new efficient business models from emerging.” I couldn’t agree more. Changing course now could not only trigger an avalanche of international regulation, but it could halt the progress of freedom’s march as well.

With these pragmatic principles in mind, freedom-loving governments everywhere should resist the temptation to regulate in the absence of pervasive market failure. Needless government intrusion into the Internet’s affairs provides nefarious authoritarian regimes with the political cover they desire to justify their interference with the ’Net.  To prevent an escalation of international regulation, we should encourage the kind of positive and constructive chaos that only unfettered competition can produce.  We should adopt spectrum policies that promote flexible uses, spectrum allocation through fair auction processes and, when appropriate, unlicensed use of the airwaves to spur innovation and adoption.  Fueling freedom in this way will turn the world upside down for the better.

from The Siren Call of “Please Regulate My Rival”: A Recipe for Regulatory Failure” (I especially love this one since I was honored to be cited in it!):

“Regulating my rival” is a seductive notion for many, but it only lures its victims to rocky shores before revealing itself as a perilous Siren call. Telecom companies should not look to regulate their “rivals,” Internet content and applications companies, down to their level – especially not through an intergovernmental body.

Instead, network operators should seek deregulation by their home governments to allow them full flexibility to produce and price freely in competitive markets. In fact, as history shows us, attempting to regulate rivals will only produce unintended consequences that will harm the companies advocating regulation. More importantly, consumers end up losing the most. In short, the opposite of what is desired will occur, something called “regulatory failure.” No government, let alone an intergovernmental body, can make economic and engineering decisions in lightning fast Internet time. Nor can any government mandate innovation. But new rules can undermine investment, innovation and job creation all too easily.

Despite these realities, resisting the temptation to regulate is difficult for many. Furthermore, deregulation can seem counterintuitive to some. We always hear talk of “market failure,” but we rarely see analyses of “regulatory failure.” Perhaps that is why, in the words of Professor Adam Thierer, “regulation always spreads.” As world economies contract and government debt mounts, repeating the same government actions of regulating more and spending more of the public’s money will only produce the same results: shrinking economies and growing debt. It is time to reverse these trends, but doing so will require tremendous political courage.

We can start by avoiding any expansion of regulation to the Internet. Its phenomenal success can be traced directly to its voluntary and self-governing structure, the result of a multi-stakeholder process free from top-down governmental influences. In fact, policy makers should head in the opposite direction of the proposals outlined earlier. We should learn from the voluntary, bottom-up, self governance approach in the image of the non-hierarchical Internet itself, and look to apply this successful model elsewhere. Revolutionizing public policy through a fundamental modernization of legacy laws to clear away unnecessary regulatory obstructions will uncork the flow of investment capital, spark innovation, drive economic growth and propel job creation. Couldn’t today’s world economy benefit from such positive and constructive change?

On the other hand, dragging rivals down to the lowest common denominator of overly regulated international telecom companies will enshrine mediocrity at best, and, at worst, snuff out incentives to take risks and reap the resulting rewards, therefore killing opportunities to revitalize moribund economies and improve the human condition.

Robert McDowell is a great champion of liberty. His voice at the agency will be missed, but his legacy never forgotten. Thank you, Robert, for all that you have done.  (It is almost enough to make me forgive you for being a Duke grad and such a big Blue Devil basketball fan! Go Hoosiers.)

Social Heading