Are you ready for another thrilling fight over network neutrality? It’s coming.
Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, plans to dismantle rules put in place in 2015 that require internet service providers to treat all content travelling through their pipes equally. The rules prohibit the ISPs from blocking or “throttling” certain web traffic, and from offering “fast lanes” for content providers who paid for the privilege.
Pai wants to undo all that. His proposal, which is scheduled to be voted on by the full commission next month, would also reclassify ISPs as information services instead of common carriers, thereby relinquishing much of the FCC’s authority over them. Instead, the ISPs would simply have to disclose their policies to customers, and the Federal Trade Commission would monitor whether they were living up to their end of the deal.
Some key details are still hazy. But one thing is clear: This is a crazy way to set policy.
The rules put in place under President Barack Obama survived a brutal lobbying onslaught, passionate bouts of debate, and a thick tangle of legal challenges before they were allowed to stand. Companies changed their business plans, consumers adjusted their expectations, and lawyers collected their fees. Now the rules may be overturned yet again because a new administrator has other ideas. Such an arbitrary and partisan cycle will discourage investment and inhibit entrepreneurs.
A better approach is for Congress to enshrine net-neutrality rules into law. That may seem fanciful amid Washington’s current dissipation. But a reasonable compromise has been in view for years: Maintain the prohibition on banning or throttling apps and services, which would be plainly anticompetitive, while allowing the ban on “fast lanes” to be superseded when it would demonstrably benefit consumers.
Such a deal would help ensure that ISPs don’t abuse their role as gateways to the internet to favor subsidiaries or to crowd out startups. It would allow for more flexible pricing plans and new business models, while still protecting consumers. And in addressing the problem through law rather than regulation, it would provide a measure of certainty, end the cycle of partisan rule-making, and encourage longer-term investment.
In such a polarized moment, such a compromise may seem unlikely. But a functioning internet is in everyone’s interest.