There’s one question you should be asking in the misnamed net neutrality debate: How will any of this affect me?
The Federal Communications Commission is preparing to revoke a 2015 Obama-era rule that attempts to regulate internet service providers as public utilities under a 1934 law that was meant to regulate Ma Bell.
There are all sorts of claims being made, from the dishonest to the hysterical, but if you want to know what the law is actually supposed to do, and why repeal will be just fine, it’s worth looking at what its advocates are trying to make it do.
One of the main things they’re doing is filing lawsuits to prevent special offers like the one AT&T gives its customers: DirecTV streamed to your phone that doesn’t even count against your wireless data caps.
The so-called consumer advocates want to take that away.
The one thing we’re all told about net neutrality is that it’s meant to keep internet service providers from discriminating between websites, speeding access to some and throttling it to others. In theory, according to the ubiquitous fans of net neutrality, evil ISPs would charge content providers more to provide fast access to their sites, while also charging customers more, for reasons that are never made exactly clear.
The truth is that ISPs have been doing the exact opposite, with deals like AT&T’s, or T-Mobile’s Binge program, which didn’t count data used to stream Netflix, Spotify, and other popular sites.
Also, ISPs already provide super-fast access to the biggest sites on the web, from Facebook to Google to Netflix, even hosting their servers in order to give customers the fastest connection possible. This is why the debate is misnamed. ISPs already discriminate; it’s working fine.
The lawsuits make it even clearer that the advocates for regulation aren’t really looking out for the interests of the consumer. John Oliver once boiled down the issue pretty well. Instead of “net neutrality,” he said, the issue should be called “preventing cable company f****ery.”
He’s right. The real issue has nothing at all to do with network peering between internet giants (those direct pipes to Google) or free data plans. It is at best an attempt to control the behavior of cable companies, who have poor reputations.
We all know that cable companies offered terrible service when they were monopolies, and their service is still lousy where they’re not faced with competition. When they realized my brother up in Idaho was a cord-cutter, they jacked up his internet fees to $200 a month. In my neighborhood, where I’ve got a few options, the cable company called me up the other day to offer some extra premium channels for the rate I was already paying.
Competition in the market for internet service is still somewhat limited by the physical necessity of connecting your home to the network, but even a battle between the phone company, the cable company, a satellite company, and your cell service provider does a decent job of keeping prices in check. They’re all offering more of what we want for lower prices, and they’re about to face more competition still, once wireless goes 5G.
This is why a lot of tech companies are in favor of ISP regulation. The model works for them. What if, and let’s just speculate, a startup ISP was offering you a superfast dedicated connection to three of your favorite streaming sites, plus Google and email, for $15 month, and threw in free slow wireless service for your devices? You think you might take it, and just use your work connection for any other online needs? How about $5 for a no-streaming plan?
I have no idea if the future lies in that direction or any other, but when we lock a system in place through regulation, we always benefit the current entrenched interests at the expense not just of their future competitors, but at the savings the rest of us might enjoy from innovation.
Oh, there’s also the fact that the Obama regulation is an obviously illegal power grab. Two prior versions of net neutrality have been struck down by the courts, and this one would likely be reversed by the Supreme Court, were it not for the fact that the FCC is prepared to reverse itself.
The issue is not, as a deeply flawed piece in TechCrunch argues, that the FCC is supposed to decide whether broadband more closely fits the definition of an “information service” or a “telecommunications service.” The law is that if it fits the definition of information service in any way, then it’s an information service, which the FCC doesn’t have the authority to regulate like a phone company.
Any element that “enhances” a service, that makes it something more than basic phone service, is going to make the service an information service.
When the Supreme Court was asked its opinion, it ruled unanimously that internet access “is an information service… because it provides consumers with a comprehensive capability for manipulating information using the Internet.”
If plain old dial-up was an enhanced service, then broadband obviously must be as well.
While the scare stories are legion — my favorite is a bizarre rant in the Globe and Mail arguing that the end of net neutrality would mean doom for “the resistance” — and the technical details are often mind-numbingly complex, this is still a simple story. Between 2005 and 2015, competition produced an 1150 percent increase in broadband speeds. Free markets and unfettered capitalism built out the fast internet. Now the government wants to step in and help.