Imagine giving internet service providers — cable and telecom companies and the like — more control over how you surf the web, watch videos or even shop online. It's not a pretty thought, but it could happen within weeks if the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission gets his way and commissioners vote to kill off net neutrality.
Net neutrality is a simple idea that has worked well for years. It says that broadband providers are quasi-public utilities that provide pipelines for information just as other utilities provide lines for natural gas or wires for electricity. The ISPs control the pipelines and make their profit from their use, but cannot dictate what flows through them. They must treat all legal information on the internet equally and pick neither winners (say, content that they own or favor) or losers (say, a competitor's content). Those rules were codified nearly three years ago under a more farsighted FCC that realized high-speed internet has become an essential service just like water, electricity and phones.
That concept is under wrongheaded assault by FCC chairman Ajit Pai, who gets it exactly backward: He claims that ISPs will invest more in infrastructure if net neutrality dies and that market forces will encourage competition to keep prices down and service up. Those who live in the Tampa Bay area have a choice, but high-speed internet access is a monopoly for much of America, so there is no meaningful competition.
Keep in mind that ISPs already use public rights of way on the ground and that the coming 5G high-speed wireless technology will require multitudes of wireless antennas on public rights of way and will broadcast over parts of the public airwaves. And yet, the FCC chairman's plan would allow ISPs to exploit this public good to throttle content, to charge Netflix or Amazon or Facebook for a faster on-ramp to the information superhighway or potentially block them altogether. Worse, they could favor those who could easily pay a king's ransom — Facebook, to name one — over those who couldn't, perhaps a social media start-up or a promising small business.
Rather than encourage competition, it could freeze in place the current order — or make it worse by restricting content and choking speed. Had such an arrangement been in place when Myspace — remember that? — was the dominant social media network, that business could have paid for premium speed and kept Facebook from ever really starting up. That might have great for Myspace, but not for anyone else.
The new rule's only restriction? ISPs would have to be transparent about what they're doing. So long as they admit that they are literally throttling the competition or any content they don't like, it would be perfectly fine — better be ready to get out the magnifying glass to pore over that fine print.
Pai decries the current net neutrality rules as a "creaky regulatory framework" from the 1930s. Actually, it's a regulatory framework that's necessary to keep quasi-monopolies from doing whatever they want to you so long as they tell you what they're doing. And if you doubt that they are effectively public utilities, try to stop them if they want to trench through an easement in your front yard to lay fiber-optic cable in your neighborhood. Indeed, their role as quasi-public providers is only more apparent as Americans are being pushed to do more and more everyday business online, such as reach their elected officials, do their banking or use government websites for a range of services, including applying for Medicare and Social Security.
Unrestricted access to legal content on the internet should not be a political issue. Sadly, it has become so. When the FCC votes on Dec. 14, it will almost certainly be a party-line 3-2 vote, with the Republicans, led by Pai (appointed as chair by President Donald Trump in January), overturning the net neutrality we've all come to take for granted. The new rules would take effect early next year. Congress could object, as could voters by making their displeasure known to their representatives and senators or to the FCC itself.
Whether you're a Republican, a Democrat or an independent, you should be troubled that your internet provider is about to have the right to control the speed at which information enters the pipeline to reach you — or whether it gets to you at all.