In 2015, the FCC under Tom Wheeler classified broadband (and therefore broadband providers) as a communication service under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. The goal of the FCC at the time was to ensure corporations were required to serve data at a constant speed, rather than having the legal right to force consumers into fast and slow lanes, a policy known as net neutrality. But under President Trump and FCC Chair Ajit Pai, this policy has changed. Pai has announced that the FCC will vote to revoke net neutrality on December 12.
The impact of this statement stretches beyond merely allowing paid prioritization in the future. Classifying companies like AT&T, Spectrum, and Comcast as communication service providers gave the FCC increased authorization to regulate them and protect consumers as a result. Pai is set to unwind those protections as well. The only protections Pai appears to keep are those that require ISPs to be transparent in their billing practices.
The problem with the arguments against net neutrality is that they don’t factually hold up. Pai claims (PDF), for example, that net neutrality “depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation.” But there’s literally no evidence this is true. Ars Technica has discussed how investment cycles in wireless show no structural impact from net neutrality, while a report (PDF) from Free Press showed how ISPs have literally told their investors net neutrality has had no negative impact on their businesses. While these companies have still complained about net neutrality publicly, there is no evidence they’ve suffered even the smallest problem — apart from not being allowed to shove consumers into paying more and more for the same basic tier of service.
Pai’s plan to de-classify ISPs under Title II has been deeply unpopular; an estimated 98.5 percent of unique comments left on the FCC’s website opposed it. The rule will also be challenged in court by pro net neutrality advocates, though courts have typically given wide latitude to government agencies to decide if a group fell under common carrier regulation or not. The FTC will regain some authority to regulate ISPs once they aren’t considered common carriers, but it lacks the FCC’s ability to create rules that the ISPs are required to follow (it can investigate specific incidents, but it can’t create a formal structure).
Does This Constitute ‘Destroying the Internet?’
There’ve been some hyperbolic headlines across the internet, alleging that allowing ISPs to return to the previous status quo constitutes destroying the internet. It doesn’t. But what it does signal is a further willingness by the modern GOP to tolerate virtually any business practice if someone, somewhere, is willing to claim it benefits consumers.
There is no evidence to show ISP capital investment has been harmed by net neutrality, but Pai insists it has. The FCC has taken the position that markets can be competitive even in cases where there’s only a single ISP providing service to that address. On the other hand, one could argue that net neutrality has had precious little impact on the wireless world, where AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile have had great success pushing customers towards data plans with huge per-GB costs and throttling schemes that degrade video quality or preferentially don’t count certain services towards a customer’s monthly broadband usage. The actual implementation of net neutrality in the US has, for better or worse, been less monolithic and heavy-handed than its detractors claim and less universal and effective than its advocates desire.
But if establishing net neutrality drew a line in the sand, however faint, Pai is determined to erase it. It won’t destroy the internet, but it’ll almost certainly make it more expensive to access in the long term, as companies roll out service tiers and products intended to push customers towards higher-end premium packages.
Update: On a call with reporters today, the FCC commissioners revealed that, as part of the new rules, states will be barred from creating their own net neutrality requirements or standards. This is another win for ISPs, who have argued that states should not be allowed to create their own privacy standards or content service requirements. Ars Technica reports that all consumer protections within the 2015 net neutrality order are being vacated, not merely those related to net neutrality. ISPs will no longer be required to disclose hidden fees and data caps, for example. Also, the FCC will no longer evaluate whether ISPs can charge competitors for data cap exemptions or oversee interconnection disputes.
Published at Tue, 21 Nov 2017 21:01:16 +0000