Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai has some cockamamie ideas divorced from reality. The man who believes the United States is a better place if ISPs can sell what they know about us also thinks Net Neutrality would be better protected if it was voluntary.
Mr. Pai met with trade groups representing broadband providers this week, where he told them he wants to replace current Net Neutrality rules with a voluntary plan. Under that plan, ISPs would promise to obey Net Neutrality principles in their terms of service. That would shift enforcement of those promises to the Federal Trade Commission, and away from the FCC.
Nothing about reality backs up his plan. What reality does tell us is that capital will always seek out the most profitable behavior, regardless of its impact on people, the environment, business, or even capital’s own country.
The United States is a living example of there being a not-fine line between capitalism and regulation. Too much regulation and business suffers. Too little regulation and we, the people, suffer. Reasonable minds can and will argue where that line should be, but we have recent experience that proves Net Neutrality must be enforced by regulation or it will cease to exist.
Net Neutrality: the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.
Net Neutrality Is Enforced by the FCC through Title II
Under the Obama administration, ISPs were reclassified as “common carriers” through what is called a Title II classification. This was pushed through by then-Chairman Tom Wheeler, and it was resisted by then-member Ajit Pai. That reclassification allowed the FCC to require ISPs to follow Net Neutrality rules.
Conservatives tend to disagree with this sort of regulation. Their belief is that the marketplace will enforce best practices by corporations, guided by profits as consumers vote with their wallets. It’s a lovely idea that is sadly divorced from any semblance of reality.
Taken to an extreme, complete laissez-faire capitalism has always resulted in excesses by capitalists. The example that sticks the strongest in my mind was children being sent inside large machines to affect repairs during the late 19th century. The capitalists in charge found it was cheaper to turn the machines back on with the children still inside. It was more profitable to replace the dead child worker than it was to wait.
Good times, right? But wait, how about polluting waterways? Our air? Deforestation? Tainted food? Poisoned food? Even in our more regulated and more recent past, how about lead in paint? Doctors telling parents that formula was better for babies than mother’s milk? All the shenanigans from Big Tobacco? The list is inexhaustible.
Of course, we don’t have laissez-faire capitalism today. We don’t have a “free market.” We have a mostly free market bounded by rules and regulations designed to discourage the excesses of capitalism while still allowing the ideas of competition and profit to foster innovation and economic growth.
Our system works that way due to the lessons learned in the past, and I’ve never understood why so many people are willing to deny that reality.
Net Neutrality Was Under Threat Before Title II Reclassification
History shows us Net Neutrality was under threat before Title II reclassification. The big ISPs in the United States were looking for ways to increase profits—as capital always will. One way they did so was to throttle some content, either because they were pissed customers dared use the bandwidth they were paying for or because they’d rather consumers choose their own services instead. A high-rpfile battle between Verizon and Netflix is just one example.
Such fights were all but guaranteed to escalate as ISPs consolidated in the U.S., offering less and less competition. ISPs diversifying into the content industry also guaranteed friction between Net Neutrality and corporate profits.
This was the essence behind reclassification, and all evidence backs up the wisdom behind that move. There has never been one iota of evidence to support the idea that industry would stick to Net Neutrality on its own. As it is, for many years, the industry did so.
Until it didn’t.
And that’s why we need regulation to protect this vital concept. And that’s why Ajit Pai’s plan is bad for consumers and the Internet as a whole.
Privacy Advocates and Those Rooted in Reality Gearing Up for a Fight
I suspect this so-called plan will be put into practice, despite overwhelming public support for the existing rules. It won’t happen without a fight, however.
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn (D) told Reuters that if the reports of this plan are accurate “we are gearing up for a battle that could eviscerate the widely supported open Internet protections.”
Chris Lewis, vice president at Public Knowledge, said that Mr. Pai would, “give dominant cable and telecommunications companies what their DC lobbyists have dreamed of for years: voluntary net neutrality ‘rules’ where consumer protection is no more than ‘trust your cable or internet provider.'”
Internet giants who profit from Net Neutrality are also gearing up to oppose those plans. Google, Facebook, Netflix, and Apple are among a handful of rich and profitable companies who would like to see Net Neutrality rules stay in place.
As noted above, I doubt they’ll be able to stop it from happening, though, as Mr. Pai is hell bent on making the Internet suck, and he heads a majority on the FCC.