Protecting Net Neutrality with Regulation
01 March 2017
In 2015, broadband was reclassified under what’s called Title II, which classifies it similar to phone service. This means that Internet Service Providers are not allowed to (among other things) “make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services.” This is a good thing which protects ISP customers (which can be households, businesses, or even other ISPs) although Congress and the FCC could, and should go further by also using Section 706 or better, by creating Internet-centric legislation. Some service providers have been against Title II and Section 706, but interestingly Sprint has spoken out in favor of it, and Comcast has admitted that net neutrality is not the problem ISPs have made it out to be.
The current Title II classification gives the FCC authority to regulate ISPs in order to protect their customers from “unjust and unreasonable practices.” This prevents service providers from discriminating against different content types for any reason (among other things). When ISPs own or are owned by media companies as is the case for many Internet providers, allowing them to give paid prioritization (“fast lanes”) or zero-rating to the services they want to encourage their customers to use is dangerous. In an ideal world, the media would be totally neutral, but as things are now, many media outlets lean in one political direction or another. In instances like this, a third party needs to step in to make sure all Americans have equal access to all viewpoints.
Section 706 allows the FCC to to use regulation to promote competition in the market, which is another important piece of net neutrality. Service providers are capable of offering better service at far better rates, but because they actively avoid competing with each other, there is no economic driver for them to do so. This is apparent with the current battle between cell carriers to offer the cheapest “unlimited” data plan [1 - T-Mobile] [2 - Verizon] [3 - Sprint] [4 - AT&T]. There are no network capacity problems that prevent them from doing so, based on their own admissions. This sort of competition is good for consumers who then have more options and better prices. In the wired world, service providers quickly offered much faster packages at much lower prices when Google Fiber was expected to become available in their area (which at one point offered a free home Internet package). When sudden competition can drive down costs so much, it’s clear that the current free market system is not working as it should. The ISPs get wealthier, while their customers find higher prices and lower quality of service.
The legislative battle for the Internet is similar in many ways to legislative battles over cable TV and telephone, which provide a way to see some of the possibilities of a future with and without net neutrality. Telephone service over the majority of the United States was provided by a single company called Bell System (known as Ma Bell) that exerted full control over the telephone lines. They were effectively a monopoly. In order to connect something to a telephone line, even in your own home, you needed approval from the phone company. Often, you rented your telephone equipment from the same company. The company was broken up in the 1980’s and several regulations followed that provide a more open and non-discriminatory system that we enjoy today. Cable TV, on the other hand, went the opposite direction giving us service split into “packages” of different channels which sometimes disappear due to disagreements between cable providers and the broadcasting network - the reason why WFSB is currently unavailable to Optimum customers, and why The Weather Channel disappeared from DirecTV. A non-neutral Internet is likely to look more like cable TV with similar disputes and higher prices than the Internet we know now.
Unfortunately, the FCC is limited in its powers to ensure that net neutrality regulations stay intact, and in its ability to enforce them. Indeed, the current FCC chairman has already described net neutrality as a “mistake” and even quoted Star Wars Emperor Palpatine when to criticize the enactment of the current rules. Congress also voted to weaken the FCC’s powers to enforce rules such as Title II classification. To be fair, current laws are not designed with the Internet in mind. However, in the absence of Internet-specific legislation, we need to be proactive about making sure access to all information is provided equally and fairly to everyone.