The Net Neutrality Debate: Why There Is No Simple Solution
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is preparing a ruling to roll back net neutrality rules enacted under Obama. Last week, it released a 75-page “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” and opened a three-month comment period.
The upcoming change in net neutrality rules could affect anybody who conducts business online or who uses the internet to access information or content. At its core, it is a pretty complex technical problem to understand, let alone the legalities around it. To the benefit of those who are not techies nor lawyers, let me offer a reflection on the proposed rulemaking in as simple terms as possible, to show there is no simple solution.
Internet service as a basic need
It’s hard to argue against the internet as a basic need. We wake up, turn on the light and demand access to information for our everyday lives, to find out the weather, to watch news, to check social media for updates from friends and family. The internet is also fuel for economic growth, as many new industries have been disrupted and new business models have emerged thanks to the internet.
Under Obama, the FCC enacted the Open Internet Order in 2015 to regulate Internet Service Providers (ISPs), including broadband providers like Comcast and Time Warner, and wireless providers like AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, under the reasonable premise that the internet is a basic telecommunication service. This classification of broadband internet access brought with it a full set of regulations (i.e., Title II regulations) originally developed to treat phone service as a public utility, like water or electricity.
Bringing old regulations to oversee a modern technology is one of the main points of contention against the current rules. Foes of current rules, including Trump-appointed FCC chairman Ajit Pai, argue against what they see as archaic and excessive regulation in a modern technological environment.
One of the key points of the proposed rulemaking is that, despite advocating a rollback of the internet’s classification as a utility, it advocates a fair and unbiased internet. Rather, the proposal seeks classification of internet access as a value-added information service, to open the door for light-touch rules that can enable innovation and encourage investment.
Regulations specific to internet service
The current rules enacted in 2015 also stipulate what ISPs cannot do: ISPs cannot discriminate content by blocking or slowing it down, or by providing special fast lanes for certain content, for a fee. In the proposal to create lighter rules, the FCC is asking for comments on whether these specific rules are indeed necessary, given there are other broader regulations to discourage anti-competitive behavior. If the answer is yes, they seek input on how to successfully implement and enforce any portion of these rules.