Nothing neutral about internet fight


David Crisp

My daughter and son-in-law got into an argument over Thanksgiving weekend about a proposal to drop net neutrality requirements.

The argument developed along narrow lines, not whether net neutrality was a good or bad thing, but whether losing it would amount to a catastrophe or merely a crisis. My son-in-law was arguing for crisis; my daughter was holding out for catastrophe.

My grandson, Arthur King, joined in with an occasional “buh.” At his tender age of 13 months, “buh” pretty much sums up his entire articulate view of the world. Whatever doesn’t make him laugh or cry pretty much gets a “buh.”

I was rooting for my daughter to win the argument. I care less than I should about net neutrality, but I don’t want to see anything disrupting my progeny’s bliss. Living in the wilds of Western Montana, my girl and her guy get slow internet service, when they get it at all. Nevertheless, I charged online, where I found an answer to the net neutrality question that can be summed up in two words: It’s complicated.

In the chaos of the Trump administration, the issue hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, but you may have heard the basics. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission approved nearly 400 pages of regulations treating the internet more or less as a public utility. That means if you decide, for instance, that you want to open a Mexican restaurant, you go down to Montana-Dakota Utilities and order natural gas, or you go to NorthWestern Energy and order electricity, and they have to give it to you at the going rate.

They can’t say, “No, we already have a deal with six other Mexican restaurants not to let anybody else in.” And they can’t say, “Sure, you can have electricity, but only from 1-5 p.m., and you have to pay extra for it.”

The net neutrality rules are intended to guarantee equal access to the internet for all comers, without provisions favoring one company over another. Whether those rules work as intended is a more difficult question.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who used to be a lawyer for Verizon, has proposed dumping the net neutrality regulations. The FCC will vote Dec. 14 on whether to adopt his draft “Restoring Internet Freedom Order.”

In a 67-page dissent from the FCC’s 2015 rules, Pai said they would result in “higher broadband prices, slower speeds, less broadband deployment, less innovation, and fewer options for American consumers.” The rule in effect turned the internet over to the Washington bureaucracy, he said.

The Republican-dominated commission is expected to pass his new order, despite thousands of protesting phone calls, planned demonstrations before the vote, and a letter from 28 Democratic senators asking for a delay because of possible tampering with public comments. That alleged tampering includes about 50,000 omitted comments from consumers complaining about their internet service providers.

Unsurprisingly, Montana’s U.S. senators disagree about the wisdom of dumping net neutrality. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, said in a news release last week that the order would “block websites, slow down internet access, and routinely interfere with web traffic.”

Tester wrote to Pai, “The only true freedom in your Order is the freedom for these large corporations to reduce consumer choice, control the flow of internet information and increase profits at the expense of everyday Montanans.”

Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, introduced legislation back in 2015 that would exempt small businesses from some of the transparency requirements in the net neutrality rules. Like every other bill introduced by Daines, it went nowhere, but similar legislation has since passed the U.S. House, and the FCC has rolled back some requirements on its own.

Daines welcomed Chairman Pai’s draft order.

“Some of America’s greatest companies were born on the internet,” Daines said in a news release. “By dismantling harmful internet regulations, American companies will have an open internet that allows their business, and our economy, to grow.”

More thoughtful observers do little to unravel the disconnect. Pai has said his proposed order would turn internet regulation from the FCC over to the Federal Trade Commission, but it isn’t clear whether the FTC has the proper authority. He also has said that nobody was blocking internet access before the net neutrality rules took effect, but that isn’t entirely true.

In any case, the internet is increasingly dominated by fewer companies. Some observers suggest that we are kidding ourselves if we think that big internet companies aren’t already cutting deals with major internet service providers to get preferred service. Google, Netflix and Facebook are among companies that have dedicated computer servers inside giant ISPs like Verizon and Comcast.

Evidence from other countries with different, or no, net neutrality rules only muddies the water. The Verge website argues that Pai’s rules are “generally awful and paradoxically restrictive,” but it also warns against reducing the debate to a “good-versus-evil battle” over “alarmist half-truths.”

Gee, a real debate. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? But it hardly seems likely in today’s overheated political environment. The hardest thing to figure out is what effect all of this will have on young Arthur King when he is prowling the sluggish rural internet in a few years.

I wanted to ask him, but I already knew his answer: “Buh.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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