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July 20, 2016

GOP Platform Keeps to Well-Trodden Policy Grounds, Observers Say

IPI expert referenced: Tom Giovanetti | In The News | Media Hit
  Washington Internet Daily

Observers see the 2016 Republican Party platform generally aligning with traditional Republican telecom positions, despite inclusion of a line saying ISPs shouldn't pick winners or losers. Delegates largely preserved the platform rough draft circulating among Republican National Convention officials more than a week ago (see 1607110057). The 66-page final document evolved markedly in two instances, based on the version adopted and released for the first time Monday at the GOP convention in Cleveland. Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump hasn't released a telecom agenda, unlike presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

At least two platform sentences were added. Delegates in the platform committee's Government Reform Committee met privately early last week to review and overhaul the initial draft language. Out of that process came one sentence, recommended by the Institute for Policy Innovation. It said Republicans "will consistently support internet policies that allow people and private enterprise to thrive, without providing new and expanded government powers to tax and regulate so that the internet does not become the vehicle for a dramatic expansion of government power."

"In general I think the platform language has become less and less important to the Republican nominee in recent cycles, but probably never as unimportant as it will be to Trump," emailed Institute for Policy Innovation President Tom Giovanetti. "But for that reason I thought the platform was, perhaps ironically, more important in this cycle, because it becomes a matter of WHO defines the beliefs of the party? A nominee who is at best erratic when it comes to policy, or the activists of the party itself? So we made an effort to influence the language of the platform in several areas, including communications. We thought the language on technology, Internet and communications was generally good, but there was an absence of language that explicitly opposed efforts by governments to expand their power to tax. In my mind, this includes states' efforts to impose an Internet sales tax regime ala the Marketplace Fairness Act, though I knew mentioning that specifically would arouse opposition. So we circulated some of our proposed language to a handful of longtime friends and acquaintances who were on the platform committee, so they would at least be aware of our concerns and have language available should they choose to put it forward."

Also included was another new line: "The internet's free market needs to be free and open to all ideas and competition without the government or service providers picking winners and losers." That sentence provoked debate last week among GOP delegates, with one insisting it could be read as an endorsement of net neutrality (see 1607130024). Republicans generally question the merits of net neutrality rules, and the platform does slam Communications Act Title II reclassification of broadband and Obama administration internet and broadband deployment policies generally.

"I wrote it," John Nabholz, a Trump delegate from Arkansas who spent years working in IT, told us by phone from Cleveland Tuesday. "No one came to me. And I essentially prevailed. This is the most important thing I was able to do this cycle." Nabholz told us he sees the line as affirming the marketplace's prevailing role, "the same free market, the same open competition" to help preserve what he called "the open and free internet."

'Not a Controversial Idea'

That "winners and losers" line "is problematical because it could be read to imply that the government has a role in policing service providers' choices regarding the content they provide to their subscribers," said Free State Foundation President Randolph May. "It's the government picking winners and losers that we need to be concerned about, not just as a matter of policy but also as a matter of conforming to First Amendment strictures."

Others didn't see a major GOP policy shift. "I don't think you'll find a service provider in America that says it wants to pick winners and losers," said TechFreedom President Berin Szoka. "On a high level, this is not a controversial idea." Trump officials like anything that can be "played in populist terms" and this line sounds populist, Szoka said. Giovanetti also doesn't see the platform as endorsing net neutrality, saying almost all would agree with the sentence in question. "I would expect a Republican Congress to attempt to undo the FCC's Title II regulatory power grab if they had a Republican in the White House, though I do not know whether a President Trump would sign it," he told us. "I suspect he would. ... Nobody -- not even rabid opponents of net neutrality regulations like me -- thinks ISPs or the government should be picking winners and losers." American Enterprise Institute visiting fellow Roslyn Layton said she also doesn't see the platform as particularly favoring or opposing net neutrality, pointing to Title II as the bigger problem for ISPs.

The platform's key points, which slam Title II net neutrality rules, call the Obama administration broadband policies ineffective and question its internet governance strategy, largely track from the 62-page platform in 2012. Both versions back public-private partnerships and question FCC regulatory direction. The 2012 version calls the 1996 Telecom Act "woefully outdated" but the 2016 version makes no mention of that. The 2016 version includes a reference to IoT and speaking of Obama hails the "Congressional Republicans who have legislatively impeded his plans to turn over the Information Freedom Highway to regulators and tyrants."

Trump's campaign didn't comment on any possible platform influence or endorsement. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who ran for president and retains delegates, was seen as possibly influencing internet governance language in the draft platform (see 1607140084). Nabholz, the Trump delegate, said he received the rough draft of the platform from RNC staff Sunday and was unsure of any influence, campaign or otherwise, in earlier drafting stages. Danielle Cutrona, counsel to Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Katy Talento, legislative director for Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., were the two policy staffers tasked to the Government Reform section, encompassing telecom policy.

Limited Policy Appetite

"Campaign platforms can provide clues about a political party's governing philosophy, but after the curtain comes down at the conventions, they really just collect dust until the next convention comes around four years later," a former senior FCC official told us. "Trump's operation does not have much of a policy apparatus, so it looks as though the tech planks of the GOP platform came from members of Congress and their staffs who have worked on these issues for years. When it comes to these issues, a safe assumption is that Republican experts on the Hill will lead. That said, there are no safe assumptions when it comes to Trump."

Layton lauded the platform for mentioning private investment, citing its critical importance in areas ranging from spectrum to R&D generally. She highlighted language urging a Republican president and Congress to "forge a consensus solution" on encryption and the balance between privacy and security, and said any candidate who could do this would "win some votes from the tech camp." Layton also compared the current FCC "takeover" of the internet to what the governments of China, Cuba and Iran do, saying "Republicans should emphasize this." She agrees with the platform's section on confronting internet tyranny abroad and would put the FCC and Obama in that camp, she said.

"Platforms are not known for nuance and detail, although this one does run on at considerable length," May said, unsure of Trump's endorsement of the platform views. "While acknowledging the usual platform rhetorical hyperbole, I am sympathetic to the tenor of the 'Protecting Internet Freedom' section of the platform. It generally can be read -- except for the last sentence -- as opposing government-imposed net neutrality mandates and opposing a too hasty transfer of U.S. oversight of ICAAN's responsibilities."

Some right-leaning telecom policy stakeholders expressed frustration over Trump. "Should conservative policy folks rebut the crazy, uninformed things Trump has said?" tweeted Giovanetti last week. "Is there any point?" Szoka said the Trump campaign seems to have little interest in policy. "The Trump campaign doesn't 'fall' on things," Szoka remarked, sharing anecdotes of those who have met with the campaign to learn there's "literally no one on staff" handling certain policy matters. Conservative commentator Ann Coulter, a Trump backer, told Business Insider this week that "I want FCC chairman" under a Trump administration, spurring pushback online for her comments that she would "look at" communications contracts given "some of the media has just gotten very powerful and very unfair." Szoka noted on Twitter that the 2016 GOP platform backs "an end to the so-called 'Fairness Doctrine,'" which was abolished years ago, and warned that no one should tell Coulter, who wants to "reinstate some bizarro version of the Fairness Doctrine so she can use it against Trump's critics." Layton said a "real concern" of the open internet order "is that it's a Fairness Doctrine" for the internet, able to regulate political speech: "They recognize this concern."

"No one has any idea what the Trump campaign's positions are on communications policy," Giovanetti told us. "I don't think Trump has ever thought seriously about much of anything on policy -- I think he relies on proven punch lines that draw rapturous applause. There's no evidence at this point that there is anything approaching a policy process on the Trump campaign -- which is part of why I thought the platform was more important in this peculiar year."


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