It has been widely reported, including by me, that last week the net neutrality rules mandated by the then Democrat-dominated FCC in 2015 have been overturned. According to supporters of the dismantling, the FCC made the right move by overturning an Obama-era “power grab,” and thereby ending the agency’s micro-management of the internet.
Proponents of keeping net neutrality rules, on the other hand, have quite a different view. For them, the prospect of “fast lanes,” holding hostage those who cannot pay ransom for better service. and creating an uneven playing field which favors the large ISPs is ill-conceived. What follows is a brief, and by no means comprehensive, examination of the two disparate arguments, which may help explain the gulf that divides the two sides of the net neutrality issue.
For Net Neutrality - Against rollback
For the many champions of net neutrality, last week’s FCC vote, strictly along party lines, is nothing short of a disaster. They claim that there are more issues on the table than just the potential of higher costs for prioritized service (paid prioritization). Regarding this, they say we need only look what happened fifty years ago when cable companies were the new kid on the block. Back then, cable created a more competitive environment that challenged the monopoly of the old-line TV networks.
They were welcomed by consumers because they presented a cheap alternative to better broadcast options. However, gradually over the years, the old industry incumbents wrested control back, and soon it became the monolithic industry we think of today. Gone were the unprecedented choices and many cultural benefits that the nascent cable industry provided and “hello” to higher prices was now the norm. Then the Internet came along and broke this business model wide open, and restored some semblance of sanity to pricing.
Suddenly, viewers at home saw an explosion of creative new content and voted with their clicks, not their wallets. Essential to the Internet’s growth was net neutrality, i.e., all traffic flowed at the same speed over the network, regardless of ownership or content. Proponents of net neutrality claim the cable companies panicked at the possible loss of control and revenue and conspired to use their pipes to control the speed and simply slow transmission for Internet content or make them pay more for faster access.
Feeling that this was unacceptable, both political parties policed things to ensure that this intrusion on the open Internet did not happen and it was wide open for all. In 2015, Obama’s FCC set down net neutrality rules to codify this arrangement and his FCC did so - again along strict party lines. Other arguments to maintain net neutrality include things like the prohibition against paid prioritization, potential to block content, stifling innovation due to possible prohibitive costs which will be felt by startups - to name just a few.
Against Net Neutrality Rules- For Repeal
Those in favor of the rollback usually first rely on their “go-to” argument that things were going along quite well, thank you, before the introduction of net neutrality rules in 2015. There was no compelling reason to “save” it, they contend. In fact, they point out that there was a bi-partisan approach to policing that precluded any need for what they would view as classic government overreach by Democrats. Actually, they claim The FCC action benefits consumers and ensures that the internet will be free from burdensome government control.
By ending net neutrality, they say, Trump’s FCC gets government out of the business of telling ISPs how to run their networks. This puts consumers and private businesses back in charge of how the internet operates. They argue that since outfits such as YouTube, Netflix, and other internet video streaming businesses consume lots of data compared to almost all others going online, it might make sense for Verizon and other ISPs to ask such businesses to pay a little more for their services.
Shockingly, the streamers might not balk about paying more for better service. Then the question becomes how much more, would they automatically pass it on, and would the consumer be willing to pay more - as he seemingly is always willing to do - to get a better product? The concept is free enterprise- which has worked well for some time - and the consumer may choose to participate or not. If you don’t like your speed or whatever, simply switch ISPs.
They contend that is a better deal than having the usually out-of-touch, inefficient government involved. And then, if an ISP is behaving unfriendly, the Federal Trade Commission is there to step in. That’s its role which was neutered by the overreach of net neutrality- so say the opponents of the rules. They claim the rollback is a victory for Americans because, under net neutrality, nothing was stopping the government from, say, banning a website it didn’t like. What recourse then, they ask?
The Proof Will Be In the Eating
Time will tell exactly what the impact of the rollback will be in terms of costs to consumers and future innovation. Hindsight, however, will show poor judgment on the part of the Obama administration for not arm-twisting lawmakers to codify the net neutrality protections into law. And by not doing so it turned this worthwhile endeavor into a partisan political football. It may simply mean that at this stage of the “game” the Republicans have the ball. If Trump continues to put his foot in his mouth and flounder, the other “team” will again have the ball in a few years.