With the vote whether or not to repeal Obama-era FCC Net Neutrality regulations soon to be underway, the internet has been barraged by those in favor of keeping these regulations, with very few people even considering what the opposite actually entails.
What is “Net Neutrality?”
The idea behind net neutrality is that of a free and open internet. As Google put it in a statement, “The Internet should be competitive and open. That means no Internet access provider should block or degrade Internet traffic, nor should they sell ‘fast lanes’ that prioritize particular Internet services over others. These rules should apply regardless of whether you’re accessing the Internet using a cable connection, a wireless service, or any other technology.”
So why would anyone oppose Net Neutrality?
When people are referring to repealing Net Neutrality, they are not referring to the idea itself, but to FCC regulations which enforce this principle and reclassify ISPs as a telecommunications service. Most, if not all, consumers support an uncensored internet, without Internet Service Providers (ISPs) throttling data behind paywalls. The problem, however, arises with the question of how to accomplish and ensure such a system.
Says Ajit Pai, the current FCC commissioner,
Well, I favor a free and open Internet, as I think most consumers do.
My concern is with the particular regulations that the FCC adopted two years ago. They are what is called Title II regulations developed in the 1930s to regulate the Ma Bell telephone monopoly.
And my concern is that, by imposing those heavy-handed economic regulations on Internet service providers big and small, we could end up disincentivizing companies from wanting to build out Internet access to a lot of parts of the country, in low-income, urban and rural areas, for example.
And that, I think, is something that nobody would benefit from.
If the FCC regulations are repealed, how can we ensure net neutrality?
Many will argue that, by repealing the FCC regulations, ISPs will be able to control what content consumers are able to access, either by locking this content behind paywalls, throttling connection speeds to less popular or unsavory websites, or by censoring the content completely.
However, these fears are unfounded. The repeal of the FCC regulations will allow the FTC to instead enforce net neutrality, according to a release from the FCC.
Many of the largest ISPs (Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Cox, Frontier, etc.) have committed in this proceeding not to block or throttle legal content. These commitments can be enforced by the FTC under Section 5, protecting consumers without imposing public-utility regulation on ISPs.
But what other assurances has the FCC offered to ensuring fair practices by ISPs?
The FTC’s unfair-and-deceptive-practices authority “prohibits companies from selling consumers one product or service but providing them something different,” which makes voluntary commitments enforceable.The FTC also requires the “disclos[ur]e [of] material information if not disclosing it would mislead the consumer,” so if an ISP “failed to disclose blocking, throttling, or other practices that would matter to a reasonable consumer, the FTC’s deception authority would apply.”
The document also cites Sherman Anti-Trust laws designed to prevent monopolies.
Section 1 of the Sherman Act bars contracts, combinations, or conspiracies in restraint of trade, making anticompetitive arrangements illegal. If ISPs reached agreements to unfairly block, throttle, or discriminate against Internet conduct or applications, these agreements would be per se illegal under the antitrust laws.
And no, ISPs cannot throttle speeds to Netflix.
If an ISP that also sells video services degrades the speed or quality of competing “Over the Top” video services (such as Netflix),526 that conduct could be challenged as anticompetitive foreclosure.
It is also interesting to note that, prior to the adoption of these regulations in 2015, no such fears of censorship or throttling came to pass in the entire history of the internet that was not resolved without government intervention.
What Net Neutrality repeal actually means
To summarize, repealing Net Neutrality will have the following effects:
- Internet service will no longer be classified as a utility. Public utilities do not compete. Public utilities do not innovate. Public utilities don’t serve consumers.
- Regulation of internet service will be transferred from the FFC to the FTC. The FTC has a good record of protecting consumers.
- Consumer privacy regulations previously in effect in the FCC (voted out earlier in 2017) that prevent your information being sold by your ISPs are still in effect in the FTC, effectively blocking the sale of your personal information.
- Less power to regulate the economy will be consolidated in the hands of the federal government.
- FCC Bright-line rules that protect internet openness will also be repealed.
Because of the repeal of the bright-line rules, there is risk involved “that ISPs engage in conduct that harms Internet openness.” However, the FCC addresses this too, citing antitrust laws and FTCs authority to prohibit these practices on a case-by-case basis.
Ultimately, by repealing the Net Neutrality rules adopted by the FCC in 2015, the internet is in little danger of losing its openness. ISPs will not be allowed to censor or throttle content, and will be unlikely to want to do so in the face of competition. Regulation enforcement will be removed from the FCC and be handled by the already existing antitrust laws and FTC regulations. Removal of these rules will open the internet to more innovation and contrary to popular belief, will not hurt, but help small businesses, websites, and most importantly the consumer.