Net neutrality is just a “slogan.”
This week, the head of the Federal Communications Commission and a Republican US senator each called net neutrality a “slogan” that solves no real problems, with the senator also arguing that the Internet should have paid fast lanes.
“It’s a great slogan,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said, when asked by a radio host what net neutrality is. “But in reality what it involves is Internet regulation, and the basic question is, ‘Do you want the government deciding how the Internet is run?'”
Pai, who is touring midwestern states to meet with rural ISPs about broadband deployment, appeared with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) on WTMJ Radio in Milwaukee on Monday. You can listen to the interview here (hat tip to Stop the Cap).
“As chairman Pai said, net neutrality is a slogan,” Johnson said. “What you really want is an expansion of high-speed broadband, and in order to do that you have to create the incentives for those smaller ISPs to invest. They don’t really control their own fiber if the government tells them exactly how they’re going to use their investment.”
Because of net neutrality rules, “there’s less incentive to invest, so we’ll have less high-speed broadband,” Johnson said.
While the FCC wrote the current net neutrality rules and is considering undoing them, there are also net neutrality proposals in Congress. That means Johnson could play a role in shaping future rules (if there are any).
“You might need a fast lane”
The net neutrality rules in place today prevent home and mobile Internet providers from blocking and throttling lawful Internet content, and they forbid so-called “fast lanes.”
But Johnson thinks ISPs should be able to sell “fast lanes” to websites and online services that are willing to pay for quicker access to customers.
“Chairman Pai just mentioned medical diagnostics,” Johnson said. “You might need a fast lane within that pipeline so those diagnoses can be transmitted instantaneously and not be held up by, I don’t know, maybe a movie streaming.”
In reality, the net neutrality rules already allow priority access for medical services. Certain types of services can be given isolated capacity to ensure greater speed and reliability, and providers of telemedicine (or remote medical diagnosis) can take advantage of this exception to the rules. The idea behind the exception is to give certain crucial services their own network capacity rather than a “fast lane” within the same broadband pipe shared by most other Internet services. (We detailed this in a previous article after Johnson claimed that net neutrality rules give pornography the same level of network access as remote medical services.)
Johnson argued on this week’s radio show that net neutrality rules don’t solve a real problem:
I’m old enough to remember Dick Tracy when they had a TV watch. That was fantasy, we’ve got it nowadays because of a light-touch regulatory environment. This was literally a solution looking for a problem. The problem didn’t exist. I know it’s a good slogan, but what’s going to happen is because of this heavy-handed regulation we’re going to have less investment, we’re going to have less high-speed broadband, and consumers are going to be worse off because of this term, ‘net neutrality.’
Johnson also said that the Internet thrived without net neutrality rules, and he said there were no net neutrality regulations until 2015. In reality, the FCC imposed net neutrality rules in 2010 and they were in place until 2014, when a Verizon lawsuit led to a court decision striking them down.
Radio host Gene Mueller pushed back a little bit, saying, “it seems like everything is fine” under the current net neutrality rules with their classification of ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. (The FCC reclassified providers in 2015 in order to reinstate the net neutrality rules.)
“I have access to what I need when I need it, but with the removal of this Title II where we start treating the Internet as a commodity as opposed to a utility, that means the provider can then decide what I’m going to see more of,” Mueller said. “If Spectrum [Charter] wants me to see Spectrum products first, then I’ll see that and other things will be slowed down.”
Mueller described a “fear that this wide open pipe will become monetized for providers’ profit.”
Nothing to fear, Pai says
Pai said there’s no reason to worry. The scenario described by Mueller “is not the Internet we had prior to 2015 when we didn’t have these rules,” he said.
Net neutrality advocates disagree with Pai on this point. Free Press, for instance, keeps an updated list of net neutrality violations dating back to 2005 when Comcast was caught interfering with peer-to-peer file sharing technologies.
Pai also argued that even without net neutrality rules, the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission could stamp out anti-competitive behavior to protect consumers.
“You don’t need the FCC preemptively regulating every single Internet service provider and every single business practice,” Pai said. The FCC should focus instead on boosting infrastructure, he said.
FTC Commissioner Terrell McSweeny disagrees with Pai on the FTC’s ability to enforce net neutrality, arguing that the FCC has a better understanding of the broadband industry and how networks operate. McSweeny, a former antitrust lawyer in the Justice Department, also says that it would be difficult to apply antitrust rules to the problem of ISPs interfering with Internet content.
The Internet as a “government-run operation”
Pai has said he will keep an open mind before deciding on a final course of action; the FCC is taking public comments until August 16 before voting on whether to undo the current rules. But he once again made it clear that he is opposed to the commission’s current net neutrality policy and Title II regulation.
Everyone wants more broadband investment, but “treating the entire Internet as a government-run operation is not the way to do it,” he said on the radio show.
Pai did not explain exactly how the current rules make the entire Internet “a government-run operation.” Private ISPs are still private; they just have to avoid discriminatory practices that could harm online services and their customers. The current rules also apply only to companies that offer access to the Internet; they do not apply to backbone networks that also play a crucial role in the Internet or to the operators of websites that Internet users visit.
Pai insisted that the net neutrality rules “put the government rather than the private sector at the center of how the Internet operates.”