The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Ajit Pai, recently unveiled his plan to eliminate Obama-era “Net Neutrality” rules, the legal obligations that forbid Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from blocking access to your websites of choice and which proscribe the speeding up of web contents and websites through premium, paid prioritization lanes or other means, in detriment of and/or throttling down other content.
The Democrat led FCC, under Thomas Wheeler, enacted these norms after placing the Internet under Title II of the Federal Communications Act, thus reclassifying it a “telecommunications service” subject to administrative oversight.
Once the Pai Plan is approved, the Internet will become an “information service” that cannot be regulated. The FCC vote is set for Dec. 14, in less than two weeks.
Chairman Pai, a mild mannered, competent and — in my view — a well-intentioned public official, holds that the cable companies and other ISPs will self-regulate; an ideological belief in the invisible hand of competitive forces guiding markets towards loftier goals than pure profit and progressive consolidation.
I think he is mistaken. Although some companies will behave, experience shows that even under the relatively lax rules still in place, some like Comcast, Verizon and others turn out to be recidivist offenders.
In sum, voiding Title II Net Neutrality protections will allow money to progressively be the prime determiner of what information reaches you, and a tool for drowning out content of lesser economic means.
I have not seen or heard any substantial reaction to this issue either by our private sector or government. The issue is outside our collective radar, naturally eclipsed by Hurricane María, its infrastructural and socioeconomic effects, as well as Trump’s reactionary and destructive tax legislation which has been a sword of Damocles over us.
But the issue is important. The Internet is being cornered by large ISPs (so-called “Big Cable”); the startups of yesterday are giant, powerful multinationals today. And the rights of individual users, our ability to assert these rights in appropriate and accessible fora will soon disappear.
No doubt that markets and technical innovation must continue to be the main drivers of Internet evolution, deployment and adoption. But no market can be truly free without regulatory boundaries.
Examples abound: extreme deregulation prompted savings and loans failures, securities and bond fraud, sub-prime lending abuses, and the distorting effects of unlimited money in the electoral process, under guise of First Amendment liberty.
Competition is good, it is essential, but no market is perfect. Market distortions require empowered and enlightened consumers, able to assert and enforce their rights.
Although I think Net Neutrality ‘repeal and replace’ is but a fait accompli by the current FCC, I am certain the debate will not end.
It will take a future Democratic administration in the White House and in the FCC to reverse the damage and restore our free and open Internet.
When the time comes, we must demand that this is so.