On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission approved dramatic changes in the way the internet operates. A 3-2 majority reversed a 2015 rule that was long in the making and reflected the principle of net neutrality, in which internet providers such as AT&T and Verizon must treat all online services equally.
Net neutrality has been integral to the development of the internet as something indispensable to our lives, whether at work, at home or at play. The driver has been freedom of access and choice, whether for startups ready to launch or consumers deciding what to read.
Under the new regimen, all of that appears in jeopardy, or at least unnecessarily narrowed. The big internet providers will gain the clout to speed up or slow down access for apps and websites.
For instance, they could charge higher fees to travel faster lanes. Or they could erect other barriers, say, making access more difficult for competitors. It is not hard to imagine smaller, niche websites facing higher costs.
Ajit Pai, the new FCC chairman and a former Verizon attorney, insists the changes will encourage investment in better broadband and enhance competition. He plays down apps and websites suffering because others receive preferential treatment, contending that internet providers have no incentive to short change customers. He adds that internet providers must be transparent about their moves.
Yet, as many analysts have noted, this approach already has proved wanting. Europe adopted a similar structure, and soon faced internet providers throwing up obstacles or otherwise discriminating. Such outcomes arrived even with some increased competition.
Europe thus changed direction, embracing net neutrality, opening the networks of large phone companies and internet providers to a wider range of competitors. Improved competition and upgrades in overall service followed. Which gets to a concern here. Today, roughly half of American households have just one option for an internet provider. The new rule won’t change that. It actually makes those providers more powerful in the marketplace.
Another concern goes to the Federal Communications Commission transferring authority to the Federal Trade Commission as the overseer of internet service providers. As Tom Wheeler, a former FCC chairman and the architect of the 2015 rule, points out, it still hasn’t been settled that the FTC has jurisdiction under the law. A related case is making its way through the federal courts.
Congress could intervene to ensure the FTC has the power, but that isn’t likely soon. So the FCC, in effect, would leave internet providers without a clear overseer.
When Wheeler and colleagues adopted their net neutrality rule, they did so seeing the internet as a presence akin to a utility, requiring a higher level of regulation to ensure ease of access and quality of service. That doesn’t just help customers in consuming content. It opens the door to investment and innovation. Now that favorable landscape is at risk, as big internet providers get their way