One year ago the FCC ignored a bipartisan majority of the public and killed popular net neutrality consumer protections at lobbyist behest. But contrary to conventional wisdom the FCC’s “Restoring Internet Freedom” order didn’t just kill “net neutrality”: it neutered the FCC’s authority over ISPs, ceding much of its remaining power to an FTC that lacks the authority or resources to really police bad behavior in telecom (the whole point). Those who continue to insist the repeal couldn’t have been that bad because the internet didn’t immediately explode only advertise their ignorance to the scope of what the telecom lobby actually accomplished.
Again, the telecom industry didn’t just eliminate net neutrality rules (after allegedly trying to stuff the FCC website comment ballet box using fake and dead people), they eliminated most oversight of some of the most predatory, uncompetitive, and disliked companies in America. We effectively took the very ideas that helped create monopolies like Comcast, and doubled down. Should it be allowed to stand, the FCC’s repeal leaves telecom giants (with two decades of anti-competitive behavior under their belts) free from both competition and meaningful regulatory accountability.
If you don’t see the problem there, you probably haven’t spent much time looking at your broadband bill, watching AT&T do business, or talking to Comcast customer support.
With a few exceptions (like AT&T using its usage caps to harm competitors like Netflix, or Centurylink blocking internet access to spam its own security products), most ISPs have tried to be on their best behavior in the year since. Why? They’re worried about state laws that popped up to protect consumers in the wake of FCC apathy. They’re also worried about the lawsuit by 23 AGs filed against the FCC, a ruling in which is expected any day now. Should the FCC lose, the FCC’s 2015 rules could be fully restored. ISPs don’t want to significantly change their business models at scale only to have the rules pop back up declaring them in violation.
As a result ISPs are just biding their time, waiting for the full green light to behave anti-competitively. They’ve spent some of that time getting their biggest sycophants in Congress to push bogus net neutrality laws framed as serious attempts at “bipartisan consensus” intended to “put the issue to bed.” In reality these bills, literally written by industry, only serve one purpose: pre-empt tougher state or federal efforts to protect net neutrality. Such bills are filled with loopholes and the tech policy equivalent of a head fake.
In reality, this Congress has made it very clear it will never pass a net neutrality law with any real teeth.
Case in point: some lawmakers spent the repeal anniversary trying to get Mitch McConnell to floor a genuine, three-page bill (the Save the Internet Act) that would simply restore the FCC rules. But while that bill passed the House last April, it has little to no hope passing the telecom-campaign-cash-slathered Senate, where McConnell has declared the bill “dead on arrival.” As such, the best hope for restoring the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality rules rests with the ongoing lawsuit.
Should the lawsuit fail, the onus lies with voters to 1) purge Congress of Luddites and telecom lackeys that have repeatedly made it clear that the public interest and Democratic process does not matter to them, and 2) push this new Congress to pass a real net neutrality law down the road.
Either way, this is a problem that’s not going away for the telecom industry or anybody forced to do business with them. With US telcos refusing to upgrade or repair their aging DSL lines, cable giants like Comcast and Charter are securing bigger regional monopolies than ever across much of the United States (and no, 5G wireless isn’t going to magically fix the problem). Emboldened by a lack of regulatory oversight and little real competition, they won’t be able to help themselves, and will inevitably try to take full advantage in new and creatively stupid ways.
For example, it’s not hard to envision some if the controversial “zero rating” shenanigans we’ve seen in the video space impacting innovative, emerging businesses like game streaming. ISPs are busy cooking up their own challengers to cloud gaming efforts like Google Stadia (which eliminates home hardware and devours bandwidth by moving all processing to the cloud). Given precedent, you can be fairly sure ISPs will ensure usage caps apply to competing services, but not their own products. They’re already doing it with video, why wouldn’t they elsewhere?
Those who have foolishly claimed net neutrality rules weren’t important because the Earth didn’t immediately stop rotating on its axis don’t understand that this has always been a slow death by a thousand cuts scenario. First, ISPs get consumers used to monthly usage caps and overage fees that have no valid technical justification. Then, they begin using those caps to disadvantage their competitors (which again is already happening). From there, they get consumers used to being nickel-and-dimed by charging you more money to view HD video streams as intended, or to avoid having your games, music, or video throttled.
We’re already well down the rabbit hole, and most of these “net neutrality doesn’t matter” folks haven’t even noticed (or worse, are foolishly cheering as they stumble and bumble their way down the slippery slope).
Anti-competitive shenanigans aside, the FCC’s 2015 rules also required that ISPs be more transparent about what kind of connection you’re buying. The repeal made it harder to determine whether services will be throttled or banned outright, because ISPs no longer face any real penalty for lying to you. And with the FCC’s authority eroded and the FTC too busy to police telecom seriously, nobody will do much about other bad behavior in the sector, be it wireless carrier abuse of your location data, or the ISP tendency to sign customers up for scam services they never asked for.
While States may pick up some consumer protection slack, the FCC’s repeal also attempts to strip states of that ability as well. The telecom lobby goal is no competition and no federal or state oversight. A perfect vacuum. See the problem yet?
While Facebook’s issues are undeniable, the recent exclusive fixation on Facebook as the root of all evil in tech policy circles has been a huge gift to the telecom lobby. Telecom lobbyists have been pushing for the hyper regulation of companies they hope to compete with in the video ad space, hoping you don’t notice they just convinced government to obliterate oversight of their own businesses, despite its natural monopoly problems and ad ambitions every bit as problematic as Facebook’s.
Silicon Valley and telecom share many of the same problems, including the abysmal treatment of consumer privacy. But telecom is always going to be unique in that its customers are entirely captive. You might be able to fix this by simply pushing for policies that bring more competition to market, but history has repeatedly shown how that’s difficult with a Congress slathered in campaign contributions from the likes of AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Spectrum.
Those “bored” by the net neutrality debate miss the broader implications. And those applauding the rules’ demise are usually oblivious to not only what the rules did, but the fact they’re actively cheering against their own best self interests. Net neutrality isn’t something that just goes away with the passage or the elimination of rules, and violations are just another in a long line of symptoms of a broken telecom market we refuse to fix due to rampant corruption. No period in tech and telecom policy history has done a better job driving that point home.