On December 14, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to roll back Obama-era internet regulations, a move that one commissioner says will reinvigorate broadband innovation and reduce the government’s influence over the internet while keep important consumer protections in place.
“We have five commissioners at the FCC. Each commissioner gets to cast their own vote their own way. I’ll be voting ‘yes’ in favor of this plan. So we should know right then as soon as the gavel strikes where the votes are and the public will get to see it,” said Brendan Carr, who was nominated to the FCC by President Trump earlier this year. He was confirmed and sworn in to his post in August.
The FCC effort is in response to a 2015 decision to apply Title II of the 1934 Communications Act to the internet. Democratic appointees controlled the panel at the time and made the changes out of fears that internet service providers, or ISP’s, would soon be in a position to demand the purchase of services at whatever prices they wished.
Known as net neutrality, Carr says the new rules badly misapplied laws designed to address telephone service and actually wound up with the federal government micromanaging the internet and its providers.
“[Title II] arises from the 1930’s and was designed to regulate the Ma Bell telephone monopoly. It’s not designed to regulate a fast-moving, competitive marketplace. Pursuant to that re-classification, it then adopted a series of open internet rules,” said Carr.
Other than keeping some consumer protections, Carr says the policing of the ISP’s will effectively revert to the way the internet operated before 2015. Nonetheless, opposition to the plan is fierce.
Critics fear the major ISP’s – AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon – will force smaller players out of the marketplace and be free to burden consumers with mandates and higher prices.
Some activists go so far as to accuse FCC Chairman Ajit Pai of murdering democracy through this initiative.
“There is a lot of fear-mongering out there. Someone wrote me, saying that without the FCC’s Title II, Justin Bieber never would have been discovered online because he was discovered through YouTube videos. He was discovered long before the FCC’s 2015 Title II decision.
“I get it. This is the internet. This is the government being in this space. People are naturally reacting very passionately but it’s misplaced at the end of the day,” said Carr.
For casual internet users, perhaps little seems to have changed since 2015. So what impact has net neutrality had in the past two years?
“Over the last two years, we’ve seen a decline in investment in broadband networks as a result of the Title II re-classification.
“We’ve also seen ISP’s that were going to upgrade the networks, that were going to deploy new antennas, to get get new services out there pull back on those new deployments. We’ve seen some innovative new offerings from providers that have been kept on the shelf because of this massive regulatory overreach that’s associated with Title II,” said Carr.
He says reverting to the previous standards, known as Title I, many of these frustrations will fade away.
“We’re going back to the model we had in 2015. There’s a lot of confusion about eliminating all protections that consumers have online. Far from it. There are numerous consumer protections that are going to be at the core of net neutrality that are going to stay in place, just like we had them in 2015,” said Carr.
In fact, Carr says Title II actually eroded key consumer protections provided by the Federal Trade Commission and the current FCC proposal would revive them,
“By reversing Title II, we re-vest the Federal Trade Commission with authority to protect consumers that come into place because of that.
“Relatedly, consumers care passionately about their personal information and privacy online. The FTC is the nation’s premier enforcement body when it comes to online privacy. But again, because of Title II, that authority as it applies to ISP’s has been carved out. We haven’t had those protections for the past two years. We’re going to get more privacy protections as a result of this vote,” said Carr.
One of the great fears of those opposed to the current FCC plan is that rolling back net neutrality would give too much power to internet service providers. For example, they’re concerned providers could force you to use their products as a condition of being a customer and then jack up prices as much as they wish.
Carr says he’s heard that concern but doesn’t think there’s much evidence that it will happen. He says net neutrality did nothing for the price of internet service.
“Title II is not the thin line between where we are today and some of those stories that you’re talking about, price regulation for instance. Title II, right now, is not directing the prices ISP’s charge. Title II is not stopping them from offering bundled services or a curated internet experience.
“We didn’t see it before Title II. We’re not seeing it during Title II. There’s other reasons for that, including competition, fear of subscriber loss from engaging in that conduct. Those other reasons that we’re not seeing will stay in place after Title II. It’s a misplaced view of what Title II is doing right now,” said Carr.
Carr believes all sides will benefit from the government taking more of a hands-off approach to the internet.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a downside after moving forward with this. I think ISP’s are going to continue to invest, consumers are going to continue to have a free and open internet. And the edge providers – like NetFlix, Twitter and Facebook – are also going to continue to be able to benefit from a free and open internet,” said Carr.