Analysis Ajit Pai, chairman of America's broadband watchdog, today confirmed what we all knew was coming for months now: a move to tear up the Obama-era's rules on network neutrality in the US.
Essentially, under Pai's latest proposals, ISPs and cablecos can charge subscribers extra if they want packages optimized for video streaming, news, games, and so on – the downside being if you don't cough up for better access, you may end up with rather slower connections to those types of services.
In other words, if you don't pay, say, an extra $10 a month for a gaming-optimized package, you may experience unfairly higher latencies on your connections than those with the package. And that's all OK as long as companies are open and honest about screwing extra dimes out of their customers.
Before people panic, though, there are two points to make clear: first, what FCC chairman Pai wants to do go back to how things were before early 2015, when ISPs weren't treated as Title II utilities, and back then, if you recall, broadband providers weren't lobbing optimized packages at us. There was a fear, though, that Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and friends, would move in that direction, hence the scramble to enforce network neutrality across the nation to prevent particular services getting preferential treatment over others.
And the second thing is that there are always market forces in play: if one cableco's offerings are too pricey or ridiculous, punters can vote with their wallets and pick a better, fairer provider that isn't biased in favor of particular sites and connections, and practices net neutrality. However, don't forget, many Americans have little or no choice in their high-speed broadband provider, locking them into contracts with one ISP.
In three weeks, on December 14, the FCC's panel of commissioners will hold a vote on whether to enact Pai's proposals and roll back today's regulations that classify ISPs as public utility carriers. The regulator's five-strong board, which leans 3-2 for Republicans, is all but assured to approve Pai's masterplan.
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After the public utility carrier label is scrapped, ISPs will no longer have to treat all connections equally – whereas public utilities should give everyone equal access to supplies – and that the authority to regulate ISPs will be transferred to America's trade regulator, the FTC. That's kinda amusing because the FCC was earlier seen to be grabbing power from the FTC; now it's offering to hand back what it previously appeared to snatch.
The full details of the rollback will be published tomorrow, on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving when the vast majority of Americans are traveling home or already settled in and tuned out.
In announcing his plans, Pai rehashed the arguments he made throughout the year in his efforts to kill off the public utility label on ISPs, specifically the notion that his rollback would simply restore things as they were prior to 2015.
In Pai's mind, this is about freedom on the internet – the freedom for ISPs to charge whatever they want, and not be seen as dumb pipes. Broadband providers are bored with just running packets around the internet; they want to stream you their own TV shows and movies.
"Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet," Pai said.
"Instead, the FCC would simply require Internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them and entrepreneurs and other small businesses can have the technical information they need to innovate."
Following on from today's theme of not surprising anyone, Pai's critics were less than thrilled with the announced foregone conclusion. "Gutting net neutrality will have a devastating effect on free speech online," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU. "Without it, gateway corporations like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T will have too much power to mess with the free flow of information."
Said Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT):
By dismantling #NetNeutraility, @AjitPaiFCC is building a Great Corporate Firewall, dividing Internet into ‘haves’ & ‘have-nots’ & eroding free speech. No wonder FCC is trying to bury this news with the holiday. Shameful. Hurts ordinary Americans, small firms, & an open internet.— Sen. Patrick Leahy (@SenatorLeahy) November 21, 2017
Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) was even more scathing in his criticism of Pai's plan. "You’ve got to hand it to Chairman Pai – he really gets the job done for the titans of Big Cable," Wyden said.
"Tearing down net neutrality is the crowning achievement of the most anti-consumer FCC chair in history. Consumers, rural Americans, small businesses and pretty much everyone except Big Cable executives will lose out thanks to this terrible proposal."
Pai's allies in Congress, including House Rep Steve Scalise (R-LA) also spoke up:
1930’s-era utility style regulations have no business being applied to the internet in the 21st century. The best way to protect a free and open internet is to keep the heavy hand of government out of the way and let the great innovation continue. https://t.co/pzvCN6LyHs— Rep. Steve Scalise (@SteveScalise) November 21, 2017
Likewise, Dem commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel wanted everyone to know they're not happy about the upcoming vote. Clyburn, in particular, got into the spirit of the season.
"In just two days, many of us will join friends and family in celebrating the spirit of Thanksgiving. But as we learned today the FCC majority is about to deliver a cornucopia full of rotten fruit, stale grains, and wilted flowers topped off with a plate full of burnt turkey," Clyburn thundered.
"Their Destroying Internet Freedom Order would dismantle net neutrality as we know it by giving the green light to our nation’s largest broadband providers to engage in anti-consumer practices, including blocking, slowing down traffic, and paid prioritization of online applications and services."
"Following actions earlier this year to erase consumer privacy protections, the commission now wants to wipe out court-tested rules and a decade’s work in order to favor cable and telephone companies," added Rosenworcel. "This is ridiculous and offensive to the millions of Americans who use the internet every day."
Meanwhile, Republican commissioner Brendan Carr was pretty happy with the decision.
"Today, the Chairman circulated a draft order that would restore Internet freedom by reversing the Obama-era FCC’s regulatory overreach," Carr said. "Prior to the FCC’s 2015 decision, consumers and innovators alike benefited from a free and open Internet because the FCC abided by a 20-year, bipartisan consensus that the government should not control or heavily regulate Internet access."
And fellow Republican commissioner Michael O'Rielly chimed in with: "The time has come to overturn the market disrupting net neutrality and common carrier regulations that sacrificed decades of precedent and the independence of the agency for political ends while doing nothing to protect actual consumers."
You will never guess who also just loves the plan: big telcos.
"Chairman Pai will restore the long-standing bipartisan approach to the internet, which will help drive billions of new dollars into mobile broadband networks, boost our economy, and ensure that we continue to lead the world in mobile wireless services," said the CTIA, which represents wireless and internet providers, from Verizon to AT&T and Sprint.
"The FCC’s critical action will allow our vibrantly competitive wireless market to drive new innovation and services for consumers, preserving an open internet for all Americans."
Don't expect this to be the end of the matter, however. In true Washington DC fashion, pundits are already hunkering down for what will likely be a series of long and costly court battles to reverse Pai's reversal of the rules.
One final thought: amid all the years-long drama over net neutrality, internet upstarts have been quietly working to ensure their services are prioritized over others. For example, Netflix installs jukeboxes of cached video files at the edge of ISP networks so that subscribers get direct access to streaming servers without clogging up the 'net's backbones. How this works within the bounds of net neutrality is not exactly clear.
"Proponents of net neutrality are typically worried about the monopoly and pricing power held by cable companies and other internet service providers," mused Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University.
"Options for access, however, are improving. Cellphone service is falling in price, smartphones are growing in size and quality, and Wi-Fi connections are all over the place. That said, a lot of monopoly power remains. But look at it this way: those monopolists don’t want to distort the consumer experience too much, so they can keep charging high prices.
"I used to favor net neutrality, but I now think we’re at the point where we’ll do just fine without it." ®