Net Neutrality Neutered
The FCC's new rules mean Internet Service Providers have more freedom. That's not all good.
Throughout the debate over net neutrality, we’ve been skeptical that Barack Obama’s approach of regulating Internet Service Providers (ISPs) under telecommunications standards from 80 years ago made the most sense. In fact, conservatives didn’t trust Obama to regulate anything with the best intentions for the free market, because he so regularly allocated too much power to the executive branch.
Net neutrality is a good thing, however, whether Obama had the right angle or not. As much as we hate to admit it, the Los Angeles Times editorial board is mostly right: “The [FCC] reclassified internet access as a telecommunications service in 2015, and it’s important to remember why: to bar broadband providers from blocking or throttling data from legal sites and services, from creating fast lanes for sites and services willing to pay for them, and from discriminating unreasonably when managing traffic on their networks. Those protections are all designed to protect the online status quo.”
We still argue that Title II regulations aren’t the best way to do that, as it would be far preferable for Congress to take action to set boundaries appropriate to the technology.
But the FCC’s decision Thursday to return to the prior regime of what Chairman Ajit Pai calls “light touch” regulation is, unfortunately, likely going to lead to some undesirable behavior from Big Business. Half of America has Internet access only through a single broadband provider, and most of the rest has a choice between only two. That means monopolistic providers are free to charge whatever they wish, throttling traffic that doesn’t pay up or belongs to a competitive service.
What happens when Time Warner decides that their competitor shouldn’t get through, or only gets through poorly? It isn’t theory, either. Verizon throttled Netflix in 2017 in contravention of the rules.
Under Pai’s new rules, the Associated Press accurately reports, “the Comcasts and AT&Ts of the world will be free to block rival apps, slow down competing services or offer faster speeds to companies that pay up. They just have to post their policies online or tell the FCC.” The LA Times adds that the problem with this is that “broadband providers could pick winners and losers online and stay out of trouble for it simply by disclosing that they are, in fact, prioritizing traffic for any online site or service that can afford the fee. No deception and no unfairness, but no neutrality, either.” And that’s why it’ll face inevitable court challenges.
The bottom line is really this: Do we think that major media conglomerates are inherently trustworthy? Or do we think that given the opportunity, they will engage in anticompetitive behavior to the detriment of customers who have no recourse? If you’re a conservative who understands human nature, you probably believe in some form of regulation, but ideally only as much as necessary. As we’ve said before, the dilemma is one of trust, and neither an overbearing government nor monopolistic Internet companies are worthy of that trust.