by James Scott, Sr. Fellow, Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology
Last December, FCC chairman Ajit Paj introduced rules that reversed the 2015 Open Internet Order. The 2015 order explicitly banned blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization by Internet providers. It guaranteed free thought and a free market on an open Internet. Paj, a former Verizon lawyer, and other supporters of the repeal serve ISPs and other special interests instead of the American people and businesses. The repeal does absolutely nothing beneficial for consumers and will harmfully impact many. Paj claims that regressing the consumer protections will spur investment in 5G and other broadband networks. There is no evidence to support his claim. What little data he claimed as “definitive” proof consisted mostly of outdated deployments that were planned during the Obama administration or were funded directly by the FCC while Paj was chair. Every independent, or non-FCC, non-ISP, analysis of net neutrality agrees that the repeal will disproportionately benefit telecommunication giants while imposing proportional economic disadvantages on consumers, businesses, and market entrants.
Following the announcement last week that Senators were forcing a CRA resolution vote, Paj also claimed that supporting net neutrality was wrong and unnecessary because ISPs did not start blocking and throttling websites immediately after the December 2017 FCC vote to repeal the order. Paj neglected to mention that the only reason ISPs had not done so was that the rules were still in effect until June 2018 [A4]. To be clear, repealing net neutrality only benefits ISPs and telecoms. It increases their profits without requiring them to offer new or better products and services; instead, they provide worse services at higher rates to consumers and businesses while prioritizing online access to their digital platforms and subscription-based services.
In February 2018, the FCC published the finalized rule reversing vital net neutrality protections. Congress was given 60 days to overturn the decision. The repeal is set to take full effect in June 2018 unless immediate action is taken by Congress to counter the reversal. Now, the only hope to retain a free and open Internet is a forced vote to leverage the Congressional Review Act. A group of 30 senators can force a vote, but 51 votes are needed to save net neutrality. CRA resolutions empower Congress to overturn regulatory actions at agencies provided that a simple majority is achieved in both chambers. At the time of this writing, 48 Democrats, Sen. Angus King (I-ME), and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) have united to support the CRA. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and 32 other Democrats have submitted a new discharge petition under the Congressional Review Act to force a vote, which will take place sometime between this week and June 12, 2018. To restore the rules, the CRA resolution will need a majority in the Senate and House, as well as the president’s signature [A3]. At the time of this writing, Rep. Mike Doyle’s CRA resolution in the House only had 160 co-sponsors [A6]. Additionally, 21 states and the District of Columbia have filed a lawsuit challenging the repeal and more than two dozen states are considering legislation or executive orders to force ISPs to operate according to net neutrality within their state [A5].
The repeal will enable ISPs to force users to purchase Internet access in packages, with “premium” services costing more and allowing greater online access and freedom [A1]. One implementation of the model would look something like current cable package models. A less drastic version would a gradual shift towards subscriptions that provide unlimited access to preferred content while charging extra for everything else. Another model would have users pay for streaming rates, resolution tiers, and data caps similar to modern mobile packages [A2]. It should be noted that so-called “premium” packages would still be less than or equal to the current access and Internet speeds that users had before the repeal and that the repeal of the rule does absolutely nothing to benefit consumers, businesses (other than ISPs), or other Internet users. The abolition of net neutrality further commercializes cyberspace so that ISPs and telecom giants can capture greater profits without investing in improved infrastructure or innovation [A1].
Comcast, Verizon, and other telecoms can circumvent the free market by controlling the rates that each site is accessed or each organization views content; meanwhile, they can self-select their content to be delivered at expedited rates. In effect, the ISPs will no longer need to compete with other tech firms or innovate to deliver worthwhile services to users because businesses and consumers will have no alternatives other than not using the Internet. Innovator and emulator firms in the telecommunication industry will never be able to challenge or oust the incumbent ISPs. The changes will be slow but gradual. Freethought will be held ransom. Consumers cannot access content outside their package. The free market will be dead. Rising firms such as Netflix will automatically deliver content slower than ISP-owned services such as AT&T’s DirectTV Now, Verizon’s Go90, etc. [A2]. Other firms, such as Amazon, may have to pay a charge, reminiscent of a mob-protection fee, for users to access their sites at acceptable rates. In effect, ISPs will control the profit margin and market penetration of every business on the Internet. While Amazon and other massive corporations can afford the costs, and could even benefit from the price discrimination, small and medium businesses will unanimously suffer. The repeal of net neutrality also positions ISPs and dragnet surveillance capitalists to act as censors and access gatekeepers to websites and data.
Keep in mind that much of America’s telecommunication infrastructure is at least two decades old and was subsidized with public monies. Even before the repeal, ISPs were over-charging users and under-delivering services. So-called “unlimited” data plans imposed hidden limits, such as resolution restrictions or data caps. For instance, Verizon’s cheapest unlimited mobile plan limits video streaming quality to 480p resolution, which is DVD quality, on phones and 720p resolution, the lower tier of HD quality, on tablets. Customers can upgrade to a more expensive plan that enables 720p resolution on phones and 1080p on tablets. The higher quality 4K video standard is effectively forbidden. In 28 states, Comcast customers face a one terabyte data cap. Subscribers must pay a fee of as much as $50 a month for going over the hidden limit on their “unlimited data” package. With 4k television and streaming services standardizing, more consumers are surpassing their limits.
FCC chairman Ajit Paj argues that the Federal Trade Commission will protect consumers and small businesses from financial exploitation; however, the FTC is only an enforcement agency. It does not have the authority to issue industry-wide rules or ban unlawful content or activity. The best the agency can offer is the threat of antitrust proceedings against telecoms that overwhelmingly advance their platforms; however, antitrust cases would be drawn-out, and there is no guarantee that the threat would quell ISP behavior or that the outcome of any proceedings would benefit consumers in any way.
Net Neutrality is not a partisan issue. Regardless of political or ideological affiliation, the repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order is a detriment to the consumer and a boon to dragnet surveillance capitalists. ISPs are lobbying hard to commercialize the free Internet and subvert consumers’ rights and free thought. Americans should contact their senators and representatives and express their expectation of a vote supporting the CRA resolution to restore net neutrality. There is no benefit to consumers for repealing net neutrality. Net neutrality is overwhelmingly popular across the country because it is not a partisan issue. Voters will remember politicians who vote in favor of ISP interests instead of consumer protections. Recent polling suggests that 83 percent of voters support net neutrality, including 75 percent of Republicans, 89 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of independents. Twenty-seven states have introduced net neutrality bills, and the governors of five states have already signed net neutrality executive orders [A7]. For Congressmen, there is nowhere to hide and no excuses. Any elected official who votes to dismantle the rules in favor of the repeal should be held accountable in future elections for their complicity in crippling the free market, empowering ISPs to act as digital censors and gatekeepers, and subverting consumers’ rights in favor of lobbyists’ dollars.
[A1] Schumer, C. (2018). Senate Democrats Have a Plan to Save Net Neutrality. [online] WIRED. Available at: https://www.wired.com/story/senate-democrats-have-a-plan-to-save-net-neutrality/ [Accessed 13 May 2018].
[A2] Finley, K. (2018). Here’s How the End of Net Neutrality Will Change the Internet. [online] WIRED. Available at: https://www.wired.com/story/heres-how-the-end-of-net-neutrality-will-change-the-internet/?mbid=BottomRelatedStories [Accessed 13 May 2018].
[A3] Brandom, R. (2018). The Senate has forced a vote to restore net neutrality. [online] The Verge. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2018/5/9/17333108/net-neutrality-congressional-review-act-cra-resolution-vote-senate [Accessed 13 May 2018].
[A4] Brodkin, J. (2018). Net neutrality to die on June 11, as Ajit Pai blasts “special interests”. [online] Ars Technica. Available at: https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2018/05/net-neutrality-to-die-on-june-11-as-ajit-pai-blasts-special-interests/ [Accessed 13 May 2018].
[A5] Finley, K., (2018). States and Cities Keep the Battle for Net Neutrality Alive. [online] WIRED. Available at: https://www.wired.com/story/states-and-cities-keep-the-battle-for-net-neutrality-alive/?mbid=BottomRelatedStories [Accessed 13 May 2018].
[A6] Reardon, M. (2018). Democrats in Congress are making a last-ditch effort to save net neutrality. [online] CNET. Available at: https://www.cnet.com/news/the-legislative-hail-mary-democrats-in-congress-are-using-to-protect-net-neutrality/ [Accessed 13 May 2018].
[A7] American Civil Liberties Union. (2018). ACLU Comment on Introduction of Legislation to Restore Net Neutrality. [online] Available at: https://www.aclu.org/news/aclu-comment-introduction-legislation-restore-net-neutrality [Accessed 13 May 2018].