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Attorney General Eric Schneiderman: Open-Internet Rollbacks ‘Would Be a Disaster’

New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman. Photo: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Today, more than 40 major tech companies, from Google to Amazon to Netflix, are throwing up banners in support of Net Neutrality Day of Action, attempting to stop the FCC’s attempt to roll back regulations protecting a free and open internet. (Put another way, Trump’s FCC is attempting to get rid of the rules that prevent your cable company from screwing you over on internet service.)

We talked via email with New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, whose office is in the midst of a legal case against Spectrum–Time Warner Cable over their poor broadband service, about net neutrality, what his office has seen while investigating ISPs, and what the rollback of regulations would mean for the average New Yorker.

How does the concept of net neutrality — having regulations mandating free and open internet — affect the average consumer?
We’ve all had the frustration of using a service like Spotify or Hulu and waiting for it to load. That’s a warning sign of what things would be like if the federal government undoes net-neutrality protections — allowing the broadband industry to put profits ahead of the needs of their own consumers, and charge companies and other content providers for access to an internet “fast lane.” The voices of the digital haves, who can afford to pay for preferential treatment, would drown out the digital have-nots. So consumers would pay higher prices for access to less content, and could start seeing a lot more of those frustrating loading screens.

Why shouldn’t we trust ISPs to keep consumers’ best interests in mind?
We just have to look at how these companies have abused their power in the past to understand the risks New Yorkers would face if net neutrality is rolled back. Over the last several years, my office has undertaken major investigations of national and regional broadband companies, reviewing years of internal documents. In February, we filed suit against one of these companies, Spectrum–Time Warner Cable, which serves over 2.5 million households in New York State. Documents reviewed by my office revealed that slowdowns and service interruptions were often the result of a deliberate business choice by Spectrum–Time Warner Cable to squeeze higher fees out of content providers like Netflix and the networks those content providers relied on to reach Spectrum–Time Warner Cable customers. Meanwhile, the New Yorkers who signed up for internet weren’t getting the service and speeds Spectrum-TWC promised them and charged them for. That is outrageous. And it’s clear these issues weren’t limited to just New York.

Did you see any change in ISP behavior after the FCC passed its net-neutrality ruling in 2015?
ISPs used strong-arm tactics to extract fees from content providers and other networks for years leading up to 2015. Only after the FCC passed the current net-neutrality rules in 2015 were ISPs forced to stop using these tactics. It’s vital that the federal government continue to send a strong message that it will protect free and open access and a level playing field.

What’s your view on what FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s proposed rollback of open-internet regulation will mean for us here in New York?
It would be a disaster. The big broadband providers put their profits ahead of their customers’ internet-service quality for years before the FCC issued its current rules in 2015. That’s the best evidence of how those companies will act if the FCC rolls back those rules.

On the consumer level, most New Yorkers have a limited choice of internet-service providers. If net neutrality is rolled back and you can’t wield your power as a consumer by switching to a different ISP, what will you be able to do if you go online one day and find your favorite website is harder to access because it hasn’t paid for access to the fast lane?

Our state also has a large and growing internet economy — one of the largest in the country. We have media companies and nonprofits that do a lot of their work online. What if you’re an entrepreneur and you can’t compete against a big company that takes advantage of an unfair playing field to buy access? What if an ISP disfavors a controversial viewpoint, or an advocacy campaign?

The internet is the public square of the 21st century. New Yorkers depend on it. It must remain accessible and fair for all.

Can you do anything in your capacity as a state attorney general to challenge FCC policy on net neutrality, if that should change?
I’m committed to holding companies to their promises. ISPs are promising New Yorkers that they’ll get fast and reliable connections in their homes. They can’t then turn around and rip you off with slower speeds and less reliable connections. But that’s exactly what’s been happening in New York — and that’s why we’ve sued Spectrum-TWC and continue to investigate others. We’re going to keep enforcing New York State law, no matter what the FCC decides and no matter what happens at the federal level.

But we also still have an opportunity to fight back against changes in the FCC’s policy — so I’m also asking all New Yorkers and all Americans who care about an open internet to join me in demanding the FCC and Congress keep net-neutrality protections in place. I’ll be submitting comments, and others can join me in doing so here.

How do you get the public to care about net neutrality? It can still sometimes come off as pretty dry.
The internet is an essential part of our lives, and an entire generation of New Yorkers have grown up with it. We can all understand the degree to which our economy, our public sphere, and our daily lives would be impacted if access to content was based on how much the providers of that content can pay — and whether that’s slower streaming of your favorite show, or an ISP throttling access to political content it disagrees with, that impacts all of us.

That’s why campaigns like today’s Net Neutrality Day of Action are bringing together incredibly broad coalitions. Businesses, advocacy groups, and everyday Americans are speaking as one. If we can sustain this kind of volume, we’re going to see progress.

AG Schneiderman: End of Open Internet ‘Would Be a Disaster’