The battle of who owns the internet is back at the forefront as the Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has sparked the fire with a new bill changing the rules.
It’s hard to figure out which side of the net neutrality debate to be on. On one hand, in a world without net neutrality, greedy monopolists can charge different prices to competitors, thus being able to pick the winners and losers in the arena of internet service providers. But, how is allowing the government, or the FCC, to pick winners and losers any better?
What’s really important is how will this tug-of-war affect consumers — you and me, the Netflix bingers.
Good news! It probably won’t. Relax and enjoy your weekend binges.
Nonetheless, on May 18, the FCC will vote on whether this bill should get any more attention.
What is net neutrality again?
Net neutrality is the assumption that internet service providers should allow access to all the content and apps regardless of where or who it comes from, without favoring or blocking any product or website.
We’re talking about companies such as Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Centurylink, among others, that have control over the internet highways. The “cars” on the highways are Facebook, Google, Netflix and other content providers.
In February of 2015, the net-neutrality regulation went into effect, which reclassified internet service providers as “common carriers” under Title II of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, treating them as public utilities instead of private businesses. The key rules in this regulation were:
- No blocking of sites and apps
- No throttling the speed of sites and apps
- No paid fast lanes, where, say, Comcast charges Netflix a little more to get faster service.
What’s more is that the FCC would be able to look through the agreements between the ISPs and big content providers to make sure they are fair.
The new debate
Pai is attempting to de-classify these ISPs as common carriers by not subjecting them to the Title II regulation. Though the stringent price controls that are in Title II were not applied to the ISPs, the worry is that someday they will be.
As a result, economists note that investment into broadband and wireless infrastructure has decreased by 5.6 percent since the rules went into effect in 2015. The possibility that the government can re-interpret the Title II clause and start dictating the prices they can charge companies such as Netflix or Facebook is scary to investors. Instead, cheddar has been flowing to content providers that aren’t subject to these strict regulations.
Opponents of this new endeavor are fine with the tradeoff of regulating the ISPs to keep the internet fair and open to all content providers. They also claim that the slight dip in investments are misleading as it seems the ISPs stock prices have continued to increase. Obviously, hundreds of content providers, including Facebook and Google, sent Pai letters asking to keep the rules in place.
The idea that ISPs can pick and choose what content should or should not be transmitted to internet users is also a concern for the folks in favor of the current net-neutrality rules. The worry is that they may favor their own generated content over their competitors’.
The concern over ISPs having control of what content gets in the “fast lane” or throttled is probably overblown and pre-emptive. Their defining characteristic is that they transmit content that has been generated by content providers. It’s what they do. They barely generate or store their own content.
What the government has done with implementing the stringent net-neutrality rules may be noble, but it’s simply politics as usual. What’s more, it does nothing to solve the problem of market power. It has just transferred the market power to the government, farther away from the consumers it intends to protect and benefit.
Pai is not looking to get rid of net neutrality completely, he just wants to get rid of the Title II that is seemingly affecting how these companies invest in the necessary network infrastructure. He would rather the FCC bring justice after the ISPs cross the line than to put them in a noose beforehand.
In any case, we don’t have much to worry about. But, it’s important to note that when rules keep us from experiencing the worst possible scenarios, they also keep us from experiencing the best possible scenarios. Perhaps a light-handed approach is best.
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