This afternoon, new FCC chairman Ajit Pai unveiled plans that threaten the free and open nature of the internet. This is … bad. Very bad. Let’s talk about why.
Pai’s plan is to roll back the principle of net neutrality and consumer protections, by removing internet-service providers from classification as utility providers.
A quick recap, before we go any further: “Net neutrality” is the principle that all of the traffic on the network should be treated with equal priority. Your internet-service provider should not be able to slow or speed up sources of traffic according to their own preferences. Imagine, for instance, if Netflix performed more reliably than YouTube because your ISP struck a deal with the former. In 2015, under the direction of the Obama administration, the FCC classified ISPs as Title II common carriers, in order to enshrine the principle of net neutrality with legal protection. Pretty much everyone except ISPs — that is, most internet users and all companies operating on the network — supported the FCC’s move, and the commission was flooded with millions of comments regarding the issue.
Through his speech, which had the tone of a smug high-school salutatorian, Pai outlined his plan to roll back the Title II classification of broadband, which designated ISPs as utility providers, and to reclassify them as Title I information providers. He also proposed jettisoning the FCC’s broad “internet conduct standard.”
The crux of Pai’s argument for rolling back classifications was that the regulations led to decreased investment in broadband deployment. Removing them will, according to his logic, lead to more effort to build out broadband networks, creating jobs, and eventually getting more poorly served areas online. In a hypothetical sense, sure — increased broadband access is a laudable goal. But Pai’s argument ignores the reality of the situation, one in which most large ISPs have regional monopolies that allow them to offer substandard service at higher prices compared to other developed nations, with little punishment. And those monopolies are protected by local laws and ordinances that make it difficult for smaller players to even enter the marketplace and build their own networks.
Pai accused the country’s current ISP regulations of fostering what he called “digital redlining.” An interesting choice of words, given that even the largest providers in the country already engage in these sorts of tactics. Verizon, for instance, systematically avoided deploying FiOS in poorer neighborhoods of Newark, New Jersey, by exploiting a loophole in its contract with the city. Expecting a free broadband market to fix itself has not worked, and will not work.
Pai warned of the dangers of “forcing the internet into the control of the government,” denying that “hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies” of prioritized traffic would ever come to pass. (Tell that to Netflix, which paid Comcast to secure more reliable service to subscribers in 2014.) He leveled a straw-man argument against zero-rating, an inversion of net-neutrality principles that offers specific services over mobile networks without counting against monthly data limits.
Throughout his speech, Pai cited historic comments made by liberals supporting light-touch internet regulation with a rhetorical device he seemed extremely proud of — something like, “Which right-wing zealot said this? What if I told you [jazz hands] it was a Democrat.” For a guy who griped a lot about revisionist history in his speech, he offered up a lot of revisionist history himself. For one thing, while the internet of the ’90s flourished after the network backbone was privatized, the internet’s origins lie in decades of government research, deployment, and heavy regulation (commercial activity was prohibited on the internet until the early ’90s).
The missing piece of Pai’s argument is how deregulation will affect edge providers — that is, every service running on the internet (Facebook and Google, all the way down to mom-and-pop sites). While removing Title II classification might make it better for internet-service providers, it makes the internet more centralized, and less competitive for everyone else. When ISPs play favorites, it snuffs out other services and businesses. The history of the internet is one of edge-provider Goliaths rising and falling, thanks to a neutral network that allows upstart Davids to get off the ground. Pai offered zero perspective on this.
The argument that the internet of the ’90s and early new millennium worked just fine doesn’t really hold up any more. There are exponentially more users and businesses operating on top of the internet. Many rely on it not just to waste time, but also to perform their jobs — the government itself requires citizens to use the internet in order to take advantage of a myriad of services.
It took the government more than half a century after the invention of the automobile to require basic safety features like seat belts. Just because the NHTSA wasn’t established immediately after the Model T rolled off an assembly line doesn’t mean that it’s useless. Arguing that because we didn’t have net-neutrality protections before, we don’t need them now is a lazy, transparent, specious argument that ignores how technology and society have progressed over the last two decades.
There is an upside: Pai has graciously decided to put it to a vote. Next month, the FCC will vote on a “notice of proposed rulemaking.” If adopted, the FCC will open itself up to public comment. Last time around, the commission received more than 3.7 million comments, a considerable majority in support of net neutrality.
Already, the cable-and-telecom industry is mobilizing against it. Before Pai even took the stage to unveil his plan, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation — a water-carrying organization funded by telecom trade groups — decried “all the hyperbole and misinformation from activists who want to see the Internet provided as a heavily regulated public utility.” Hey, that’s not such a bad idea.