U.S. Markets closed

Net neutrality: Debunking the arguments used to repeal it

Aatif Sulleyman
Supporter of Net Neutrality Lance Brown Eyes protests the FCC's recent decision to repeal the program in Los Angeles, California, November 28, 2017: REUTERS/ Kyle Grillot

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has voted to end net neutrality in the US, but all is not as it seems.

The controversial move was led by FCC chairman Ajit Pai, who also released a document listing the “myths” and “facts” about the net neutrality repeal ahead of the vote, designed to justify his standpoint.

However, the biggest claims made at this week’s FCC meeting and in the document are either misleading, highly contentious or impossible to prove.

Paid prioritisation

Without the net neutrality rules in place, internet service providers (ISPs) are no longer required to treat all internet traffic equally.

That means they are now free to create so-called internet “fast lanes”, prioritising certain online sites and services over others. Without net neutrality, ISPs can charge websites a fee in exchange for preferential treatment and a faster and more reliable connection.

“I am hopeful that if Congress does go down this path it will see merit in rejecting the ban on paid prioritisation,” said FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who voted in favour of ending net neutrality, this week. “I for one see great value in the prioritization of telemedicine and autonomous car technology over cat videos.”

However, Commissioner Pai dismisses the belief that broadband providers will start charging customers a premium to reach certain online content as a “myth”, because “This didn’t happen before the Obama Administration’s 2015 heavy-handed Internet regulations, and it won’t happen after they are repealed.”

However, this is a hope rather than a fact, and cannot be guaranteed.

What the net neutrality repeal does is kill off the rules that prevent ISPs from driving up prices for online services, whether directly or indirectly. If, after all, a website pays an ISP to be prioritised, it could in turn pass the cost onto customers with price rises.

Throttling and blocking

Commissioner Pai has also branded the argument that the net neutrality repeal will allow ISPs to block customers from visiting certain websites as a “myth”.

Instead, he brought up the "heavy handed" argument again, claiming, “Internet service providers didn’t block websites before the Obama Administration’s heavy-handed 2015 Internet regulations and won’t after they are repealed.

“Any Internet service provider would be required to publicly disclose this practice and would face fierce consumer backlash as well as scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, which will have renewed authority to police unfair, deceptive, and anticompetitive practices.”

Once again, this is more hope than fact. There’s no guarantee that ISPs will start blocking content or won’t start blocking content as a consequence of the net neutrality repeal.

However, what the FCC’s decision this week does is remove the rules that prevent ISPs from blocking access to legal content. In other words, the net neutrality repeal means ISPs can now block legal content if they want to, when they simply weren't allowed to before.

They can now also slow down connections for people attempting to access certain sites and services, known as “throttling”.

This could also enable ISPs to make more money out of consumers. For instance, ISPs that run their own video services could choose to slow down customers’ connections when they attempt to use a competing service.

“I sincerely doubt that legitimate businesses are willing to subject themselves to a PR nightmare for blocking, throttling or improper discrimination,” said Commissioner O’Rielly at the meeting, attempting to quell fears that ISPs could be about to start slowing down and blocking access to online content.

“It's not worth the reputational cost and potential loss of business.”

Once again, however, this is a statement of hope, and not at watertight. The FCC cannot prevent ISPs from one day doing exactly that.

As stated by Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted to keep the net neutrality protections in place: “[ISPs] will have the power to block websites, the power to throttle services and the power to censor online content. They will have the right to discriminate and favour the internet traffic of those companies with whom they have a play-for-pay arrangement and the right to consign all others to a slow and bumpy road.

“Our broadband providers will tell you they will never do these things, they say just trust us. But know this, they have the technical ability and business incentive to discriminate and manipulate your internet traffic and now this agency gives them the legal green light to go ahead and do so.”

Investment

“Under Title II, investment in high-speed network has declined by billions of dollars,” said Commissioner Pai.

He has also said that, “Following the adoption of the Obama Administration’s 2015 heavy-handed Internet regulations, broadband investment has fallen for two years in a row – the first time that’s happened outside of a recession in the Internet era.”

However, these claims have been strongly disputed.

“By multiple, independent metrics, ISP claims of depressed investment don’t mesh with reality. From actual capital expenditure numbers, to patents, to prices, the 2015 Order has not had the effects that ISPs claim,” says Internet Association.

The organisation adds, “Internet Association research finds ISPs continue to invest and innovate at similar or greater levels in the current regulatory environment, including after the 2015 Open Internet Order.”

Furthermore, as revealed by Wired, Comcast, the largest ISP in the US, increased its spending on buildings and equipment for cable communications by around 13 per cent in 2015, and by another 8.6 per cent in 2016.

“[Net neutrality] really hasn't affected the way we have been doing our business or will do our business,” the company then-CEO Neil Smit told investors in May 2015. “And while we don't necessarily agree with the Title II implementation, we conduct our business the same we always have.”

While AT&T decreased overall spending, that had been planned well in advance, in 2012.

Verizon also spent more in 2016 than it had in 2014, and Sprint even told the FCC ahead of the introduction of the net neutrality rules that they wouldn’t affect the company’s investments in its network.