There’s been a lot of talk in the last 24 hours in the media and online regarding Net Neutrality, in the wake of the Federal Communications Commission's controversial decision yesterday to repeal the Obama admin’s Net Neutrality rules for Internet access providers. Naturally — from what I’ve been reading, at least — there also seems to be some folks who are more than slightly confused on this subject, and perhaps it doesn’t help that the media for its part has been notably alarmist in its reporting of the issue and have, in many cases, insulted readers’ intelligence outright by not providing specifics or giving people a full run-down of what the FCC’s decision yesterday means.
I’ve been writing about Net Neutrality for about 11 years now, so I wanted to clarify what I believe are several popular misconceptions that seem prevalent on social media in regards to the hysteria surrounding yesterday’s ruling. Bear with me:
In the early days of the Internet (re: the ’90s), broadband Internet service was defined as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act — a utility, in other words, just like telephones. In 2002, the cable companies convinced the Republican FCC chairman at the time to redefine broadband as an information service, which has a much lighter regulatory structure. Some very smart people began saying that not having some form of regulation in place to prevent Internet Service Providers from discriminating as to what content does or does not move over their networks could potentially result in massive abuse from the ISPs, so they wanted the FCC to go back and reclassify broadband as a common carrier, thereby preventing the companies that own the pipes from giving preference to what info flows through them (e.g., a Neutral Internet). They tried this several times during the Bush admin, and it didn’t happen.
Under Obama, in 2010, the FCC created its Open Internet Order, which was essentially a series of ad hoc Neutrality principles establishing anti-discrimination and transparency guidelines for service providers. The biggest development came two years ago, however, when then-FCC chairman Tom Wheeler reverted broadband providers to common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act, thereby establishing a “Neutral” Internet wherein Internet access service is regulated just like any other common carrier.
Now Wheeler’s gone, and Republican FCC chair Ajit Pai (a former Verizon exec) has repealed that rule, meaning the government no longer regulates Internet service as though it were a utility, hypothetically giving ISPs greater reign in regards to what they can do with their networks.
Hopefully you’re seeing the pattern here: Democrat Admin. = Internet service regulated as though it were a utility. Republican Admin. = Internet as an information service, and thus, a rollback of Internet service regulations. So, the ball has bounced back and forth on this issue several times in the last 20 years, and where we are right now is exactly where we were during the Bush admin. No better, no worse.
A couple of points about this:
1) With Verizon and Comcast now essentially deemed Internet gatekeepers, the legion of content providers out there (Roku, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, Google, etc.) could conceivably get financially squeezed, paying to remain on cable providers’ “fast lane” in return for not having their content slowed down and surpassed by ISPs’ partner content. Cable companies are now dabbling in apps and Internet content of their own, and corporate consolidation between content companies and cable companies might result in a situation where ISPs hypothetically begin playing favorites in regards to what content flows over their networks and prioritizing traffic from preferred content providers they partner with, so one type of content is delivered to you more reliably while competing content is slowed down or blocked outright. This is the big one for me, and it’s something to be worried about. But here’s the thing: the cable companies can’t do anything they want, and there’s this other agency called the Federal Trade Commission that would shut them down hard if they tried many of the anticompetitive business scenarios commonly being bandied about online in regards to this development. A small comfort, but a comfort nonetheless.
2) ISPs could also conceivably begin selling service packages to their customers — basically like cable — where you’d be charged different rates for different tiers of Internet access. This begs a question conservatives love asking, which I think actually has some merit here: why would any company in a competitive and free market deliberately limit choice for consumers? I mean, if Comcast pulled this kind of malarkey on you, I’d hasten to guess you’d change providers quick (presuming, that is, you live in an area that offers more than one provider). There are serious market consequences when you mess with your customers, and that’s why providers mostly stuck with Neutrality concepts during the Bush admin, even though they didn’t have to (there were a few exceptions, like a Comcast packet forging fiasco in 2007 that resulted in a hefty fine leveled at them by the FCC). I suppose the ultimate hypothetical in this case would be a sort of content price-fixing equivalent wherein all the cable companies agreed to employ a cable model for the Internet, so that it eventually becomes the norm. I guess it’s possible, but I defer to my previous point on the effects of deliberately limiting consumer choice. So, let’s say the cable companies are foolish enough to try something like this. In a competitive marketplace, the mostly likely response would see one (more like many) competing cable providers cropping up to disrupt this model by offering what we already have and enjoy right now. And what would happen to those choice-limiting ISPs when their customers abandon them for competing companies offering more access to more content? That’s right: they begin providing customers that access too.
3) Right now, state attorneys general are gearing up to sue the FCC over its recent Net Neutrality decision. Good.
4) I would argue that ISPs should be able to block certain types of content: spam, child porn, viruses, etc.
5) It’s customary for the FCC's chairman to resign with an incoming president, who picks his own chairman for the job (Wheeler stepped down the day Donald Trump was sworn in). Also, FCC rules mandate that only three FCC commissioners can be members of the same political party (right now conservatives have a 3-2 majority advantage in the agency). If a Democrat wins in 2020, Pai is replaced by a Dem FCC chair, the agency eventually flips to a 3-2 Dem majority, and I’m predicting the pendulum thus swings back on this issue as well, with broadband Internet access service being reclassified once again as a utility, just like it was during Obama and Clinton. So, you know, be sure to vote.
6) The FCC is a regulatory agency in the executive branch. It doesn’t write laws. In theory, it only creates guidelines and enforces the laws put into place by Congress. Congress could pass a bill either reversing the FCC’s recent vote or mandating that the FCC govern ISPs with Net Neutral principles. Democrats actually tried the latter 11 years ago, when Congress was mulling a rewrite of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 during the Bush admin. If Dems take a majority in the House or Senate next November, this could be a real possibility. This brings me to my last point …
7) Just like their tax plan and their ill-fated attempts to scrap the Affordable Care Act, the Republican Party’s support for repealing Net Neutrality is going to come back to haunt them. They’ve proven time and time again this year that they care more about corporate profits than their constituents. I’m betting voters will remember this in 2018. I defer to the point I made two paragraphs back: be sure to vote.