Many may recall when the FCC ignored the pleas of just about everyone besides the telecom giants and opted to axe net neutrality, a decision which only went into effect as recently as June 11, and while Ajit Pai and friends are claiming the internet’s continued functionality is proof dissenters fears were overhyped, the reality may be something quite different.
Op-ed by Karl Bode of Techdirt
By now we’ve well established that the FCC ignored the public, ignored the experts, and ignored all objective data when it killed net neutrality rules at the behest of telecom monopolies.
While the vote to kill the rules occurred last year, the rules didn’t technically die until last June 11. And one common refrain by Pai and pals (and many folks who don’t understand how the broken telecom market works) is that because the internet didn’t immediately collapse upon itself post-repeal in a rainbow-colored explosion, that the repeal itself must not be that big of a deal. For example, Ajit Pai tried to make that point again last week at an FCC oversight hearing that was severely lacking in the actual oversight department.
In his opening statement, Pai proclaimed (pdf) that the internet still working semi-reasonably is proof positive that the threat of the repeal was over-hyped:
At the time that the Restoring Internet Freedom Order was adopted, there were many hysterical predictions of doom. We were told that it would be the destruction of the Internet, or as some outlets put it, “the end of the Internet as we know it.”…It has now been 67 days since the repeal of the previous Administration’s utility-style Internet regulations took effect. Far from ending or being delivered one word at a time, the Internet remains open and free.
Of course Ajit Pai lecturing anybody on truthfulness is amusing, given his past claims that net neutrality only aids fascists and that the U.S. broadband market is wonderfully competitive. But Pai’s not the only one repeatedly making this claim in the hopes it magically becomes true. Pai staffer Matthew Berry has also pushed this same claim on Twitter each and every day since net neutrality was repealed, though the message is usually accompanied by adorable little trivia nuggets in an effort to make them seem interesting. For example:
Charming. And given the naming choice of the FCC’s net neutrality-killing “Restoring Internet Freedom” order, that last one is quite apt.
Again, the message is that because Comcast didn’t immediately begin behaving like a jackass, what Pai’s FCC did must have been a good idea. But there are numerous reasons ISPs didn’t immediately start behaving idiotically. One, they’re worried that the FCC behaved so ridiculously during the repeal that it may not stand up to a court challenge from Mozilla, consumer groups, and 22 states attorneys general. It’s more than possible that the courts could find that the FCC violated agency policy and several laws (including the Administrative Procedure Act) by ignoring the will of the public and basing the repeal on fluff and nonsense.
ISPs are also worried about the fact that more than half the states in the nation are now pursuing their own state-level rules in the wake of federal apathy. So not only are ISPs (temporarily) inclined to behave to avoid adding any ammunition to the looming lawsuits, they’re wary of agitating state lawmakers and Governors looking for a reason to impose tougher state level rules. Should the FCC win in court and ISP efforts to ban states from protecting consumers proceed, their inevitable behavior won’t be subtle. They didn’t just spend millions of dollars gutting FCC authority and consumer protections for fun.
In short, ISPs are only really behaving until the legal fight has been settled and the dust has been cleared, something Pai and Berry know very well. But as we’ve noted previously, just because the internet didn’t immediately implode doesn’t mean that killing net neutrality won’t be immeasurably harmful. After all, what many see as a silo’d conversation about net neutrality is really about something larger: a horrible lack of competition in broadband and the laundry list of bad behaviors ISPs engage in to take advantage of that fact.
What tends to be forgotten in this whole conversation is that net neutrality violations are really just a symptom of the lack of broadband competition.
It’s a problem nobody really wants to fix, given it would require standing up to hugely powerful campaign contributors like AT&T. And instead of fixing it, the current administration’s “solution” has been to eliminate oversight of natural monopolies and gut consumer protections. The theory is that this blind deregulation of broadband will somehow magically result in a free market utopia. In reality, eliminating oversight of natural monopolies like Comcast simply frees those monopolies to engage in bad behavior, with neither regulatory oversight nor healthy competition to constrain it.
This isn’t opinion. Former FCC boss Michael Powell (now the top lobbyist for the cable industry) followed the same mindless deregulatory mantra, and it’s one of the major reason why Comcast is currently the only real broadband option in countless areas country-wide. Mindless deregulation may work in healthy markets where competition can supplement adult regulatory supervision, but broadband is not a healthy market. It’s a broken system of regional monopolies propped up by regulatory capture and corruption. Anyone who thinks killing basic consumer protections solves this problem doesn’t understand the problem we’re dealing with.
No, the internet didn’t immediately implode in the wake of the FCC’s historically-unpopular decision. But that’s not the point. Killing net neutrality is just one part of a broader, multi-decade effort to eliminate most meaningful oversight of one of the most broken, predatory, and unpopular markets in America. Anybody who thinks this hasn’t already slowly but surely resulted in significant, additional problems hasn’t paid attention to history, or spent a few hours on the phone with Comcast technical support. And as U.S. telcos refuse to upgrade their networks and Comcast’s monopoly power grows, you’d be a fool to believe the current trajectory won’t make our current broadband problems significantly worse.