The future of net neutrality

New rules were put in place in 2015 to govern a concept known as net neutrality. Those rules are starting to change.

By Joshual Brustein /Bloomberg

The Trump administration’s Federal Communications Commission on Thursday officially began the process of unraveling the Open internet rules passed by the commission under Barack Obama. The FCC’s rules on net neutrality dominated tech policy circles in 2014 and 2015, and 2017 is shaping up to be similar. Here are answers to your basic questions:

o What is net neutrality? The basic idea is that internet service providers shouldn’t be allowed to treat traffic on their networks differently based on the source or type of content. Supporters of net neutrality think that there should be rules to keep, for instance, AT & T from providing preferential treatment to streaming video from DirecTV, which it owns, giving itself an advantage while harming other businesses and their customers. Another example of a violation would be if Verizon slowed down Netflix traffic until the company paid for speedier service.

o What’s happened Thursday? The FCC voted to accept a proposal by Chairman Ajit Pai entitled “Restoring internet Freedom.” It’s the first step in the commission’s rule making process. In the broadest sense, these rules are intended to undo the 2015 rule, but undoing the rules will take time. Nine months passed between the time that Tom Wheeler, Obama’s FCC chair, introduced his open internet proposal in 2014 and the vote on the final rules. o Why change the rules? Pai doesn’t see this as a debate over net neutrality. When he gave a speech outlining his approach in April, he didn’t even use that phrase.

His complaint is that the existing rules create a system that, in his words, “gives the FCC a roving mandate to micromanage the internet.”

o What about net neutrality? Instead of laying out a new set of rules, Pai has decided to ask for suggestions about how to structure them. But he does say that there has never been any evidence of a need for net neutrality protections. His plan asks whether it would make sense to have the industry police itself. o How has the current approach worked? One big fight among people debating the Wheeler rules (and net neutrality rules in previous incarnations) is how internet regulation impacts investment in broadband. Opponents say the regulations drive investments down, because running a broadband company would be less profitable.

Most people just pick the set of statistics that fit into their ideology, says Brent Skorup, a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University who opposes the Wheeler rules. He says this is the wrong way to think about the issue. If Washington has too much power, he argues, companies that are best at pulling the levers of government will come out ahead.

Bigger companies are better at this than smaller companies, and the big internet providers are really big. “It’s not clear to me that Title II will be bad for any companies in particular,” he said.

This is a mirror of the argument made by net neutrality advocates, who argue that Google or Netflix have little to lose in a nonneutral web, where they can use their resources to cut deals that smaller competitors can’t.

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