June 11, 2018

Policy

The End of the Internet as We Know It?

By: Josh Evans

Today, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) repeal of the net neutrality rules put in place during the Obama administration goes into effect. Activists and political commentators are predicting a digital dystopia, with internet fast lanes reserved for companies willing to pay for it, while other services that aren’t are reduced to dial-up-quality speeds.

So should you expect to see your Netflix streaming slow to a crawl, or deal with entire websites being blocked by your internet service provider? Well, probably not.

The rules being repealed were put in place in 2015, so if you didn’t experience these problems before then, chances are you won’t now.

Much of the outrage stems from confusion between the principles of net neutrality and the way in which those principles are enforced. “Net neutrality” simply means being able to access whatever lawful content you wish, without unfair blocking or slowdowns. Most of us can agree that this is a good thing, but the disagreements come over how, or even if, the government should go about enforcing that principle.

In 2015, the FCC attempted to create net neutrality regulations by reclassifying broadband internet access services as common carrier communications services under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. Essentially, this means that internet service providers, or ISPs, would be subject to the same regulations as telephone services, which significantly expands the FCC’s power over them.

Unsurprisingly, a law passed in 1934, and last updated in 1996, doesn’t provide the best basis for regulating the internet. Title II gives the FCC significant power to interfere in the broadband market in ways that could potentially be harmful, even going as far as dictating what prices ISPs can set. To its credit, the FCC recognized this, and promised not to use some of the most invasive aspects of Title II.

Unfortunately, that promise isn’t legally binding, which means that ISPs are left feeling uncertain about how the FCC might choose to regulate them in the future. That regulatory uncertainty makes companies less likely to introduce new services and business models that could benefit their customers, due to the raised risk that shifting regulations might suddenly make their new ideas illegal.

In light of these flaws, the current FCC passed the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, reversing the reclassification and resulting in a change in regulatory approach from the previous administration. However, the end of the Title II approach to net neutrality doesn’t mean the internet will become an anarchic wasteland.

Before 2015, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) played a much larger role in policing net neutrality concerns. While the 2015 reclassification stripped the FTC of much of its power to regulate internet providers, its reversal means the commission will once again be in charge of protecting consumers from any harmful activities by ISPs. The FTC has shown that it is clearly willing and able to do so, as evidenced by its recent court victory over an enforcement action begun in 2014 against AT&T for slowing down the data of users on unlimited plans.

So how do you talk to someone who’s convinced this means the end of the internet as we know it? Just remind them:

– The FCC isn’t doing anything new. It’s simply switching back to the regulatory approach that was in place prior to 2015.
– The FTC has made it clear that it can and will hold ISPs responsible for any harmful net neutrality violations.
– The major ISPs have all agreed to voluntarily follow net neutrality principles. Given the strong public support for net neutrality and growing competition in the broadband market, reversing this approach would be a terrible business decision.

Don’t be taken in by the pro-Title II hype. The FCC isn’t getting rid of net neutrality. Instead, it’s returning to a proven regulatory approach that’s been taken by both Republican and Democrat-led commissions before it. There’s no reason to fear any kind of slowdowns, blocking, or interrupted Netflix binges.

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