Here we go again. Yesterday, shortly before boarding a plane to return from a long weekend in “Paradise” (the south Florida beaches – and the Keys, not in such good shape), I got a coercive email form FTFF (Fight for the Future) urging donations and “taking action” for a call-in (link) The FCC, if you haven’t heard, will vote on suspending Obama’s network neutrality rules, taking the vote on Thursday Fec. 14, 2017. It’s a little unclear how long the “unchanges” would take to happen. Expect more litigation. Ajit Pai gives us his own words on this PDF.
The Washington Post this morning produced a brief article by Brian Fung almost as menacing, hinting that the FCC will soon allow the cats into the refrigerator, with telecom companies dictating which sites readers can have. (More details in Post here).
Back around the time of the July 12 protest more moderate sites like Vox had opined, and warned on a slower, less equal Internet as probably inevitable. Indeed, panicky protests from activists scaring readers with sensational emails aren’t
Kate Cox from the Consumerist has an analysis of NCTA’s informal promise (June 30 here) to honor free speech from the small fries. “18 cable companies promise to honor net neutrality; none will guarantee you in writing.” Along these lines, Comcast had made a lukewarm reassurance to users in this blog post. And see “broadbandforAmerica” weigh in here.
Along these lines, it’s important to remember that the regulatory authority would move from the FCC back to the FTC, which cannot make rules about throttling content, but can enforce rules about “transparency.” The FCC would also abandon its classification of backbone telecom companies as “Title II” utility providers.
But a formal editorial in Bloomberg suggests Congress intervene, and require what sounds like common sense: that telecom companies not interfere with normal access to legal websites as it works today, but allow paid fast lanes when the scope is limited (like for medical services, enhancements for gaming or streaming, etc). Speculation in the past has suggested that doing so would degrade ordinary service, but not if bandwidth in a geographical area has enough capacity (which it doesn’t in some poorer areas). Bloomberg mentions the incidents after Charlottesville this summer when Cloudflare and then other major Internet companies denied Daily Stormer the capacity to be connected or register through their services, so you can make the argument that private companies already have the ability to control what their users are allowed to see based on somewhat arbitrary grounds. (Daily Stormer’s content was called “immoral”, but not, compared to child pornography or perhaps sex trafficking ads, illegal). While the Stormer content seems quite extreme and unprecedented in the minds of average users, this does sound like a slippery slope. But Comcast, at least, has promised it would never block lawfully permitted (even if offensive) content (NYTimes article 11/22) and hopefully other major companies like Cox and Verizon will say the same thing.
Bloomberg is hinting, however, that the threat that activists perceive that the loss of net neutrality (which we didn’t have until 2015) to small business or to small websites face, needs to be viewed in the context of other problems, such as erosion of Section 230 (with the Backpage controversy), and concerns over terror recruiting and fake news. Companies in both telecom transmission and content hosting or service businesses have to wonder about their fiduciary responsibilities to investors, and it could get harder to serve users whose content doesn’t pay its own way. So, yes, the editorial suggests a sensible compromise, which needs Congress.
I would add that DOJ’s litigation to hinder merging of Time Warner with ATT does suggest that “even” the Trump administration is concerned (in the anti-trust sense) about monopoly and lack of competition. So, if there is any competition at all, will large telecom companies have any reason to hinder consumer access to all legal content? I would think not – but we do wonder about incidents like Stormer and rising extremism.
I noticed when on a Southwest flight yesterday that the airlines do their own version of withdrawing net neutrality. They offer free wifi to passengers, but only to show their content. You can pay $8 for regular access.
The Wall Street Journal has a fairly balanced perspective by John McKinnon Nov. 20 here.
Wired has a comprehensive story (leading to other links) by Klint Finley explaining that the Administrative Procedure Act, design to prevent capricious regulatory policy changes following partisan administration change, could form the basis to a legal challenge to Pai’s intentions.
“Leftist” Truthout gives this analysis, getting into the regulatory environment pretty well. Trickle down doesn’t trickle? Think Progress also talks about erosion of a program giving poor people phone service — and I can recall in my early days of retirement job hunting that distribution of phone cards came up as a possibility.
(Posted: Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017 at 6 PM EST)
Update: Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017 at 1 PM
The Wall Street Journal weighs in heavily again today, as with Ajit Pai’s own libertarian op-ed that says that loosening regulations will help most users and consumers. Yes, Reagan-style Republicanism (not Trump) is good for a lot of more sentient consumers. MacKinnon and Knutson have a newer piece predicting that telecom companies will make deals with large content companies like Facebook and Google to speed up their content. That worries me because small businesses and niche bloggers who have their own separate hosted sites need to set themselves up this way to “brand” themselves rather than depend on “somebody else’s free service”. Ajit Pai probably believes that hosting companies (like BlueHost) can set up deals with the large providers (Comcast, Cox, Verizon, etc) and pass the benefits (for slight increases in hosting prices) on to customers who have their own sites. I suspect it would take some time for all of these changes to happen, maybe most of 2018.
It’s interesting that FCC Commissioner Clyburn has his own piece opposing Pai’s move on the FCC site, here. It’s noteworthy that he thinks telecom companies could disrupt small site access “on a whim”, which sounds unlikely in a real world. There were few such disruptions before 2015 (although I do remember a controversy about BitTorrent).