The Federal Communications Commission, created by the federal government, regulates interstate communications through various telecommunication methods.
Recently, Ajit Pai, the chairman of the FCC, defined his future plan to reduce government regulations meant to keep high-speed internet providers in check, otherwise known as net neutrality. He states that the reasoning behind this decision is the belief that high-speed internet service should not be treated as a public utility with rules, like other businesses that provide essentials to the public at large, including electricity, natural gas, telephone service and water.
Net neutrality refers to the idea that the internet should be open and equal for everyone. To guarantee this, regulations were enacted that prevent internet service providers from giving privilege to companies willing to pay over companies that are not willing. For example, Comcast Corp. might increase data speed transfers for a popular website that pays the company over a smaller website that cannot or will not. These rules, which govern telecommunications, cable and broadcasting companies, are bad for business, Pai argues.
Referring to his issues with the regulations approved in favor of net neutrality, he said, “It’s basic economics. The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get.”
Pai, however, faces stiff competition from those who support the regulations enforcing net neutrality, including both consumers and technology companies.
Pai’s plan stands in stark contrast to the actions taken by the FCC under former President Obama’s administration. In 2015, a federal court backed the FCC’s rules meant to uphold net neutrality, and ensure that high-speed internet service was to be defined as a utility instead of a luxury, an essential service that should be available to the public.
This push for an open internet was led by Pai’s predecessor, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. The federal court’s affirmation of his policies in 2015 was a turning point in the struggle between telecommunications companies and the government agencies attempts at regulating them.
According to an article from The New York Times, Wheeler said, “After a decade of debate and legal battles, today’s ruling affirms the commission’s ability to enforce the strongest possible internet protections—both on fixed and mobile networks—that will ensure the internet remains open, now and in the future.”
In this case, a large emphasis was put on the internet as an essential platform for users, acting as both a means of communication and information gathering. As reported by The Times, two judges who wrote the opinion in favor of the FCC’s regulations shared their thoughts on the importance of the internet in a consumer’s everyday life. One of them said, “Over the past two decades, this content has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, from profound actions like choosing a leader, building a career, and falling in love to more quotidian ones like hailing a cab and watching a movie.”
This decision by the courts led to stricter oversight of broadband providers and, subsequently, better protections for internet users. Without net neutrality, an internet service provider would be able to block content, like access to a website. One would have to pay money to visit certain sites, similar to how one might pay for premium channels on cable television. The internet service providers can even deliver content on the web, like pictures and video, at a much slower speed, and charge websites a premium so they acn deliver a faster experience to their consumers. It would be a repudiation of the idea of net neutrality, of full and equal access to everything online.
Larger companies with a huge internet presence, like Amazon, Facebook and Netflix, would benefit enormously, as they have the funds to meet the demands of internet service providers. Consumers would leave slower websites that cannot afford to pay, and instead use the websites owned by these wealthier companies. This would serve to fragment the internet into even smaller sections. An internet service provider would act as a gatekeeper between consumers and content, ultimately determining what consumers can and cannot access. Net neutrality would eventually deter consumers from using certain websites because of their slower content delivery speed when compared to larger sites.
Pai has said that he supported the idea of net neutrality, but believes that the regulations were overreaching. His stated goal of lessening the U.S. government’s regulations would leave the telecommunications industry to supervise itself. If undone, it would be profitable for companies within the industry, but critics have argued that it would hold consumers to the whim of their telecommunications companies.
Telecom and cable companies have supported Pai’s recent announcement.
According to The Times, Randall L. Stephenson, AT&T’s CEO, stated, “We applaud FCC Chairman Pai’s initiative to remove this stifling regulatory cloud over the internet.” They claim that government regulation hampers their business, and makes them unwilling to invest in their broadband networks.
Technology companies, start-ups and investors have largely held the opposing view, that net neutrality should be enforced and that the internet should be an open and equal utility for everyone.
A letter sent by a group, organized by Silicon Valley incubator Y Combinator and San Francisco policy advocacy group Engine, protested Pai’s plans to get rid of the regulations that enforce net neutrality. In the past, large technology firms, like Facebook, Google and Netflix, have been ardent supporters of the concept. Although they will also benefit from the removal of net neutrality, it appears that these companies will fight against the proposals suggested by companies such as AT&T, Comcast, Verizon.