Is killing net neutratility really a death blow to the Internet?

Ajit Pai: Unnecessary rules?

The top US telecoms regulator has unveiled sweeping plans to overturn Obama-era rules designed to protect an open internet.

The announcement is likely to spark severe opposition from groups who want to keep the internet free and prevent big cable companies charging more for internet ‘fast lanes’

The Guardian said the Federal Communications Commission chairman, Ajit Pai, plans to repeal “net neutrality” regulations that were championed by tech companies and consumer groups. The rules have been heavily criticized by internet service providers and Pai himself.

“The FCC will no longer be in the business of micromanaging business models and pre-emptively prohibiting services and applications and products that could be pro-competitive,” Pai told Reuters. He added that the Obama administration had sought to pick winners and losers and exercised “heavy-handed” regulation of the internet.

“We should simply set rules of the road that let companies of all kinds in every sector compete and let consumers decide who wins and loses.”

The move is likely to spark a furious battle before the FCC’s vote on the proposals on 14 December. About 21m comments were submitted to the regulator as it discussed the proposals, and activists have flooded legislators with more than 250,000 calls condemning Pai’s plans. The FCC’s plans will be challenged in court.

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called the decision “an all-out assault on the entrepreneurship, innovation and competition at the heart of the internet”.

Net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the internet is treated equally. Its supporters argue that equal access to the internet has been essential in creating today’s dynamic online world.

Rules established in 2015 prevent broadband companies from charging more for internet “fast lanes” for certain content and from blocking or slowing certain content. Critics charge that removing the rules will hand ISPs control of the internet – allowing them to pick winners and losers by slowing some services while giving preferential treatment to those they favor.

Scrapping the current regime said the Guardian will be a major victory for the broadband and cable industry which fought through the courts to stop the net neutrality regulations. They, and Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, have argued the rules are an unnecessary and costly burden on internet providers that hampers investment and innovation.

In a speech about the creation of the net neutrality rules earlier this year, Pai said,“The truth of the matter is that we decided to abandon successful policies solely because of hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom.”

The fight has divided the tech world and comes as cable providers are moving to take control of more and more online content. On Monday the justice department sued to block AT&T’s takeover of Time Warner, which would hand the telecoms company control of CNN, HBO and Warner Brothers among other assets.

Amazon, Etsy, Google, Reddit, Wikipedia and other tech companies have all called for the protection of net neutrality, arguing that it essential in creating the level playing field that has allowed so much innovation online.

Not everyone is in favour of net neutrality, however writing in Bloomberg, Tyler Cowen says proponents of net neutrality are typically worried about the monopoly and pricing power held by cable companies and other internet service providers.

He goes on, "Options for access, however, are improving. Cellphone service is falling in price, smartphones are growing in size and quality, and Wi-Fi connections are all over the place. That said, a lot of monopoly power remains. But look at it this way: Those monopolists don’t want to distort the consumer experience too much, so they can keep charging high prices."

His last word, "I used to favor net neutrality, but I now think we’re at the point where we’ll do just fine without it."

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.