Why Net Neutrality Rules Are on the Block

The Federal Communications Commission made its plans to undo the Obama-era “Net Neutrality” rules official Tuesday, saying it will roll back the regulations that govern how internet service providers price and deliver their services.

The vote is scheduled for the FCC’s Open Meeting on Dec. 14th and is expected to prevail along party lines with three Republican commissioners voting yes and two Democrats voting no.

Depending on where you stand on the rules, this is the “end of the internet as we know it,” as Google and Facebook put it, or the end of heavy-handed regulations that do nothing to balance out access to the internet for consumers and businesses whose model depends on high-speed delivery of content and services.

The rollback is a win for ISPs such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T.

The debate often came down to whether the ISPs were guilty of something that might, or could happen, such as “throttling” back some of their customers’ access to the internet during big-load times, especially streaming companies like Netflix who need massive amounts of bandwidth to deliver their products. This is why Google and Facebook lobbied the Obama administration hard for the Net Neutrality rules.

The difference in coverage and tone of the rule-change news among publications that lean left and right couldn’t be clearer. For example, the New York Times story about the announcement uses ominous words in its lead paragraph (with my emphasis added):


The Federal Communications Commission announced on Tuesday that it planned to dismantle landmark regulations that ensure equal access to the internet, clearing the way for companies to charge more and block access to some websites.

For one, companies already charge more for different levels of speeds and access, and it was allowed under the Net Neutrality rules. In order to tame ISPs for “throttling” down some websites or blocking access outright, the Net Neutrality rules essentially called for government cops to police this. That’s a lot of bits to patrol over a theory that the ISPs just might turn away business.

What the FCC is proposing instead is for providers to be clear about their pricing policies for high-speed access, as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote about in a WSJ Op-Ed  Tuesday,

The FCC simply would require internet service providers to be transparent so that consumers can buy the plan that’s best for them. And entrepreneurs and other small businesses would have the technical information they need to innovate. The Federal Trade Commission would police ISPs, protect consumers and promote competition, just as it did before 2015.

But that won’t stop the issue from becoming a rallying point, as the NYT continued:

The action immediately reignited a loud and furious fight over free speech and the control of the internet, pitting telecom giants like AT&T against internet giants like Google and Amazon, who warn against powerful telecom gatekeepers. Both sides are expected to lobby hard in Washington to push their agendas, as they did when the existing rules were adopted.

Reuters played its coverage mostly down the middle and picked up on the angle that Blue states or Democratic lawmakers might try an end-run around the FCC’s rule-making authority:

Pai said his proposal would prevent state and local governments from creating their own net neutrality rules because internet service is “inherently an interstate service.” The preemption is most likely to handcuff Democratic-governed states and localities that could have considered their own plans to protect consumers’ equal access to internet content.

The coverage of this is a little off the rails in many places. PopularMechanics’ article about the change reads like a grassroots activist site rather than a publication about, I don’t know, popular mechanics, with this headline that outdid even Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi in its tone:

FCC Is Revving Up to Destroy the Internet As We Know It“: Net neutrality is under attack and only collective action can save it.”

Geez people, take a breath. Do we really want 1930s-era regulations meant for an early version of Ma Bell to craft Net Neutrality rules governing a highly technical field that is constantly innovating? Rather than destroying the internet as we know it, the idea is to create conditions to deliver faster data transfer speeds like 10 gigabit ethernet and other innovative networks to the market faster.

And yes, those new levels of service will probably cost more than barely-broadband speeds, at least at first, just like any shiny new tech rollouts costs more such as the latest iPhone.

Once upon a time, most internet citizens objected to any rules to regulate the internet, no matter their political views. After all, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed by Democratic president Bill Clinton, called for an internet “unfettered by Federal or State regulation.” No more. This issue is a Democrat-regulation fight vs. a Republican, free-market argument.

More than anything, the fight over the rule-change is a testament to how important the internet, and the web that runs on top of it, have become to daily life. The concept of Net Neutrality boils down to whether we trust ISPs to deliver what we pay for, or whether you trust the federal government stepping in to regulate what is fast becoming a public good.

And that prospect gets to the question of whether you trust the government to somehow police the ISPs on how much bandwidth they deliver to customers by layering over existing regulations a swath of new ones based on a theory that includes ISP cops.

Or do we leave the private sector to innovate and support competition that drives pricing for different levels of service — and leave it to the FTC or the FCC to fine providers when they skirt the rules or abuse their market position?

After all, how many of us cough up the extra $10 a month for data service each month to ensure Netflix movies stream in high-def — only to see nothing but pixels on a Friday night when everyone’s streaming and junior’s playing video games online with his buddies? We all have issues with our ISPs at times.

Like the ISP’s quality of service on busy nights and for busy customers, the question behind the Net Neutrality rules was always about whether they actually deliver what they promise.

It’s time to let the market forces work the way they’re supposed to and unleash more innovation. That’s how you ensure everyone has more access at different price points. That’s how you watch Netflix movies with pixels in all the right places.

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