The battle over net neutrality is flaring again. That's good.
Spurred by overwhelming support in the public and business communities, and despite stark differences of opinion among Internet service providers (ISPs), legislation introduced in the House this month will once again litigate the biggest fight affecting Internet usage in American history.
The attempt at maintaining a fair and open Internet, known as net neutrality, is nothing new. The concept of non-discrimination in access to essential facilities -- called common carriage -- has been long-standing in law. But when the FCC reclassified telecommunications as information, common carriage no longer applied to Internet access. Most recently the FCC, led by current chairman and former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai, voted to repeal a 2015 set of rules that attempted to restore some common carriage principles by reclassifying broadband as a Title II service to be regulated more like a public utility. Because of the recent repeal, the door was blown wide open for companies to discriminate by charging websites or content providers for faster or slower Internet.
The Politics of Connectivity
Democrats seized on net neutrality as a hot-button issue, something many Americans support.
A world without neutrality means ISPs will have unencumbered control over most everyone's online experience. Still, the FCC-backed benefits to repealing net neutrality remain unfulfilled. Their case is, essentially, that telecom expenditures and network upgrades slowed after the initial ruling and tier ones like Comcast or Verizon, freed from net neutrality obligations, would increase investment and expand coverage. We see the exact opposite result; there's actually been reduced investment by cable ISPs since the repeal.
Those of us who see the enormous benefits to keeping rules that guarantee net neutrality -- including 83% of Americans -- feel these regulations were important for personal freedom and a fairer marketplace. Giving preferential treatment to any particular service or application to any company that pays more money isn't just unethical; an Internet without net neutrality also limits the inherent freedom of innovation for the economy. And it impinges on civic values like free speech.
While a few larger ISPs promise to maintain net neutrality in name only, they spent about $30 million combined lobbying against regulations that held them accountable. The National Internet and Television Association (formerly the National Cable and Telecommunications Association) spent over $500,000 -- or half a billion dollars. After all that lobbying and schmoozing, members of this trade organization now have de facto legal permission to create online fast and slow lanes or to charge an additional toll while acting on nothing but a vague, good faith promise that they won't take advantage of users. Sowing confusion about how the FCC ruling will indirectly affect consumers is great for their business.
The Internet should nurture an environment for permissionless innovation. Businesses and the economy rely on this. But the broadband connectivity marketplace isn't fully developed enough to give sufficient consumer choice, severely limiting innovators unless there is net neutrality, Fundamentally, we need net neutrality protections because of the marketplace's failure to provide competition for consumer Internet access. For example, if you don't like a particular restaurant, you can simply choose to eat dinner elsewhere. Most likely, you can even choose a different restaurant that offers the same type of cuisine. That's not the case for residential Internet access.
Large-scale residential providers already have the lion's share of customers, meaning they have market power. Essentially, they're holding customers hostage to extract an extra toll from content providers to reach this audience. If there were dozens of choices and somebody tried to impose restrictions on content or applications, you could take your Internet access business somewhere else. You only need regulation when market forces are insufficient to discipline any supposed bad actors.
By contrast, the business sector actually is a competitive marketplace. Consequently, the marketplace imposes discipline on ISP behavior and there's little chance any business would tolerate any kind of access abuse. If consumers had the same ISP choices as enterprises, the need for net neutrality protections would be greatly reduced.
The bottom line is this: the Internet should remain open, with equal access for any new application, content form or social platform. Net neutrality is an appropriate regulatory framework for the modern Internet. These rules and protections should come back. We call on our fellow, independent ISPs to remain engaged and recognize these civic values are also essential to innovation -- and to the future economic health of society at large.
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