December 6, 2017

No, Net Neutrality Isn't a Women's Issue

Andrea O'Sullivan

Feature Writer

Jennifer Huddleston

Former Research Fellow

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s deregulatory steps will be a great boon to women — and to everyone else, for that matter. 

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Is “net neutrality” a women’s issue? Some commentators suggest that the Federal Communications Commission’s pending reversal of the Obama administration’s version of the doctrine — 2015’s Open Internet Order (OIO) — could allow internet service providers to cut off access to feminist outlets such as “Pantsuit Nation” websites and limit women’s voices online. The confusion surrounding net neutrality has given rise to such controversies. In truth, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s deregulatory steps will be a great boon to women — and to everyone else, for that matter. 

First, it’s important to separate actual OIO regulations from the impassioned rhetoric about net neutrality. As our Mercatus Center colleague Brent Skorup has repeatedly pointed out, the OIO does not actually implement net neutrality as laid out in Tim Wu’s seminal 2002 article. Under the OIO regulations, internet providers can still legally block content — even the Pantsuit Nation forums — as long as they inform their customers that they are going to do so. 

So what did the OIO do? Simply put, it reclassified internet service providers as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, subjecting them to extensive precautionary regulation. In the past, the FCC would simply observe the activities of internet service providers and intervene when principles of competition or net neutrality appeared to be violated. 

This was the case in 2007, for instance, when Comcast’s network management practices adversely affected BitTorrent users. Advocacy groups petitioned Comcast to revise its procedures, and the matter was settled privately. No top-down system of permission and control was needed. These hands-off policies predominated during the first decades of the internet, as it revolutionized society. 

Women-focused and women-led media companies flourished online before the OIO, filling demands not met by traditional FCC-regulated media. These ranged from small unique community websites to larger media undertakings such as Tina Brown’s Daily Beast and Arianna Huffington’s Huffington Post. The technology sector is one of our most innovative American industries today precisely because of such light-touch regulation.

But everything changed in 2015. Suddenly, internet service providers needed to ask FCC permission to roll out any kind of service innovation — such as free content offerings for consumers — while other internet players, such as social media platforms and streaming services, remained largely unregulated. The OIO empowered the FCC to investigate and block internet service changes preemptively, until these such changes could be shown to be in the “public interest.” 

Why does this matter for women? 

When entrepreneurs and firms must ask permission before innovating, it makes their success much less likely. And there is no question that keeping the OIO would seriously dampen innovation and investment in the United States. One study from the Phoenix Center calculates the opportunity costs of such regulations to be roughly $20 to $30 billion a year. That’s a lot of potential female-led firms. 

Frankly, it’s a little insulting to see “women’s issues” exploited to promote bad policies that dampen innovation. Women are best served by a dynamic economy that offers opportunity and growth — not a Depression-era regulatory scheme that empowers bureaucrats at the expense of entrepreneurs. 

Women and minorities tend to be among those who are harmed most by approval and licensing schemes like the OIO, since they are generally not as well-connected as their white male counterparts. A 2015 McKinsey study found that increasing women’s equality across fields could produce an additional $12 trillion in global GDP by 2025. A 2017 survey of American stay-at-home moms found 75 percent would be likely to work if they had more flexibility. Fewer government barriers means more investment in high-quality broadband and other services that would make telework arrangements more practical and affordable, further enabling women to enter the workforce.

If anything, opposing the OIO is a women’s issue. 

We should therefore give three cheers for Chairman Pai’s Restoring Internet Freedom order. It would return internet service provider oversight to a light-touch regulatory system mostly overseen by the Federal Trade Commission, Department of Justice, and state attorneys general. That system allowed the internet to become the centerpiece of American innovation — which, in turn, created countless opportunities for women and may someday also help close the gender gap in business.