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Net neutrality is back in the headlines this week as the new Chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Agit Pai (R), has introduced a new proposal regarding broadband. When President Trump was elected, many speculated that net neutrality would be one of the first issues the FCC would take up, and it turns out the speculation was correct. For more background on the FCC, Agit Pai, and Net Neutrality, take a look at the pieces Clay & Milk published earlier this year in a two-part series on the FCC.
Net Neutrality, or the “Open Internet Order” is often a divisive philosophy and current set of regulations that, per the FCC, protects and maintains open, uninhibited access to legal online content without broadband Internet access providers being allowed to block, impair, or establish fast/slow lanes to lawful content. This means that internet providers are required, through government regulation, to essentially offer the same services for all consumers without tiered costs.
According to a fact sheet from the FCC, “In 1996, President Clinton and a Republican Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, stating that the U.S. would “preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet . . . unfettered by Federal or State regulation. This bipartisan approach was tremendously successful. The private sector invested about $1.5 trillion, connecting hundreds of millions of Americans. Consumers were protected and benefited from innovation. And America’s Internet economy became the envy of the world.”
Two years ago, the FCC implemented a new regulation — the Open Internet Order, on a party-line vote. The current Administration and Chair believe that the allowance of government to regulate lead to the decrease of investments for broadband networks, halted the deployment of new and upgraded broadband infrastructure, jobs were lost, and online privacy was weakened because Title II stripped the Federal Trade Commissions (FTC) of authority over broadband providers’ privacy and data security practices.
The New Proposal
Chairman Pai’s new proposal, “Restoring Internet Freedom for All Americans,” focuses on five specific areas. The areas include: spurring broadband deployment throughout the country, creating jobs by putting Americans to work deploying broadband, boosting competition and choice in the broadband marketplace, securing privacy by giving jurisdiction back to the FTC (the FTC is said to be the nation’s premier consumer protection agency and Pai does not believe that the FCC members are subject-matter experts on privacy), and finally, restoring internet freedom by ending “government micromanagement and returning to the bipartisan regulatory framework that worked well for decades.”
According to The Hill, there are really four main ways that the proposal would change things. There would be more free data plans, internet fast lanes, smaller internet providers could have a harder time breaking into the market, and new regulation for telecoms (this relates to being handed back over to the FTC).
The complete proposal is not yet available, only the outline. Chairman Pai was sure to mention in the outline, however, that the entire text of the proposal will be made available to the public before the FCC votes on it — unlike the 313 page regulatory plan that was kept secret until after the vote in 2015.
The Battling Theories
The desired outcome either for or against net neutrality is the same: access to internet for all. As always, there are two sides (at least) to every issue, and like most, this one comes back to the same question: Which will provide better services, the free-market or the government?
Opponents of net neutrality fear that if the government has control of internet speeds and content, it could lead to a form of censorship. The FCC rules of the Obama-era allowed for a selective ban on blocking internet content and oversight of the internet interconnection market. Currently, the FCC is allowed to prevent any practice that they think will “unreasonably disadvantage” a user, application or content provider. If these powers were to be taken advantage of, the FCC would be able to monitor and control content online- and by doing so use the rules to shape culture and politics.
Proponents of net neutrality, on the other hand, do not trust service providers to be honest and equal. They fear that service providers will cater only to businesses, and a proposal such as this will only widen the digital divide — leaving those in poverty with even fewer tools to use. Chairman Pai’s proposal allows service providers to voluntarily uphold promises to consumers that would mirror net neutrality principles, and excuse the advocates if they don’t just take the service providers word for it.
This is only a proposal, and as mentioned before, it’s only an outline of desired outcomes. The plans for exactly how everything will move forward are not yet established. Both sides have reasons to be skeptical and both require trust. Either trust of the government or trust of the service providers, and in all honesty, both take faith. It seems to me that the best option is to meet somewhere in the middle and establish a system of checks and balances between the two.