By No Labels
Few regulatory issues get as much attention as the “net neutrality” rules before the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) today. And why not? These are quite literally the rules that govern the internet, so they will affect us all.
The Republican majority on the Commission is expected to roll back 2015 rules that regulate internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon. The ruling has drawn a massive outcry on both sides, with supporters and advocates both claiming they fight for a free internet and both pointing to statistics to back their claims.
Here’s what you need to know about today’s ruling.
Net neutrality is shorthand for the requirement that internet service providers treat users, data, websites, applications — virtually everything on the web — equally. It prohibits them from speeding up or slowing down the flow of data, or levying extra charges, based on any of these characteristics.
In 2015, the FCC under the Obama Administration, invoking telecommunications law, ruled that internet service providers would abide by net neutrality, and that has been the regulatory regime governing internet service providers since then.
Supporters of net neutrality say it is necessary to maintain a level playing field. They argue that if an internet service provider could charge one company more to use its pipeline, block certain websites or change the speed of certain types of data (known as “throttling”) based on its own priorities, all sorts of inequities would manifest.
The New York Times Editorial Board, in arguing against the rollback, wrote that internet service providers could “turn the internet into a later-day version of cable TV, in which they decide what customers can watch and how much they pay for that content.”
Indeed, many major tech companies such as Google and Facebook and internet activists strongly support net neutrality and oppose the rollback. Andrew McCollum, who was part of the team that created Facebook, described the argument elegantly in an op-ed, explaining how the social giant was blocked by individual universities back when it was a collegiate social site and imagining a similar situation unfolding for other companies today who would be at the mercy of the internet service providers.
Those who oppose net neutrality argue that it will lead to more innovation and investment by internet service providers. They point to the years prior to the 2015 regulation as prosperous decades in which the internet and the technology companies that shape it all thrived.
“It gave us an Internet economy that became the envy of the world,” wrote Ajit Pai, the Republican chairman of the FCC, in a release last month. “But in 2015, the prior FCC bowed to pressure from President Obama. On a party-line vote, it imposed heavy-handed, utility-style regulations upon the Internet. That decision was a mistake. It’s depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation.”
Robert McDowell, a former Republican FCC commissioner, said the rollback of net neutrality will be healthy. “The Internet will remain robust, vibrant, open and freedom-enhancing,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “Predictions of the Net’s demise will be proven wrong and they will be long forgotten. Do you remember all the folks who bought Amish butter churns before Y2K? The world didn’t end then either.”
Pai is the man walking point on the rollback, and he described it this way: “The federal government will stop micromanaging the internet. Instead, the FCC would simply require internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them and entrepreneurs and other small businesses can have the technical information they need to innovate.”
Importantly, the proposal will also transfer the power to police the internet from the FCC to the Federal Trade Commission, which had long experience in doing so prior to the 2015 ruling.
Why is the FCC revisiting net neutrality just two years after its ruling? The answer is short and simple: The administration changed hands. Every time party rule changes, policies and priorities change with it.
Bipartisan legislation might be more durable, but agency regulations are relatively easy to change. The Trump administration plans to change several Obama Administration regulations, just as Obama changed many Bush Administration regulations. Net neutrality is simply among the most notable.
Of course, the Commission’s ruling will almost certainly be challenged in court, so this debate is far from over.