Friday , 25 September 2020
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Editorial: The free and open internet is about to become less free, less open

FCC chairman sets out to repeal 'net neutrality' rules

“Net neutrality” is one of the phrases that makes the eyes glaze over. But for anyone who uses the internet for anything, from watching cat videos to deep-state surveillance, net neutrality could not be more important. And next month it could be going away.

The Federal Communications Commission, now controlled by three Republican appointees, is moving to rewrite regulations passed just two years ago that guarantee that all content on the internet is treated equally. This is the way it’s been since the World Wide Web became accessible to the public in 1991.

Net neutrality is not broken, but Ajit V. Pai, President Donald Trump’s FCC chairman, wants to fix it. Pai tweeted Tuesday: “Today, I’m proposing to repeal the heavy-handed Internet regulations imposed by the Obama Administration and to return to the light-touch framework under which the Internet developed and thrived before 2015.”

This is singularly dishonest. The FCC, with a Democratic majority under President Barack Obama, merely enshrined the neutral internet into federal regulations.

Pai is rewriting regulations to benefit big internet service providers and claiming that he’s undoing burdensome regulations. This is the “big lie” approach to policy, as you’ll discover when your Netflix movies go into endless buffer mode.

The big internet service providers — AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Charter, etc. — see a business opportunity here. If they can charge a customer more for receiving a priority transmission slot, then that’s just the free market at work. After all, the ISPs argue, they’ve invested in the routers, cables and connections that make the system work, why shouldn’t they be able to charge what the market will bear?

That means everyone else’s content will be delivered just a little bit slower, but that’s just freedom at work — enabled, of course, by Pai’s new regulations. So if Comcast, which has a 30 percent ownership stake in the Hulu streaming TV service, gives Hulu priority over competitors like Netflix, well then, too bad for Netflix and its customers.

Pai dismisses concerns like that as “hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom.” But an immutable fact of nature is that monopolies will act like monopolies.

Big tech companies like Google and Amazon are opposed to any change. Small wonder: They were able to prosper precisely because the internet was an open market. Future innovators won’t find things quite so easy.

The Supreme Court or Congress will eventually have to settle this dispute. Already a U.S. Appeals Court has upheld the Obama-era rules that said the FCC can regulate the internet as a public utility. Pai argues that the ISPs that enable the internet are competing businesses that should be regulated by the Federal Trade Commission. Net neutrality will be enforced “voluntarily,” he said.