No, The Death Of Net Neutrality Will Not Be Subtle
from the in-your-face dept
If you listen to Comcast , AT&T, Verizon and their army of paid allies, nothing bad will happen now that the FCC has voted to kill net neutrality protections. In fact, Comcast argues, without government oversight of an uncompetitive market, investment and jobs will soon be miraculously springing forth from the sidewalks. It will, the industry argues, be impossible to even measure the incredible innovation that will be created by letting entrenched ISPs (and their natural monopoly over the broadband last mile) run roughshod over the backs of American consumers and smaller competitors.
But even among folks that support net neutrality, there’s pretty clearly a contingent that still believes the damage caused by the repeal of the rules will somehow be subtle. Because the net neutrality debate in recent years wandered into more nuanced and quirky areas like interconnection and zero rating, they believe the ultimate impact of the repeal will likely be modest. After all, these harms (like Comcast exempting its own content from usage caps, or Verizon covertly choking interconnection points) were murky and out of the intellectual or technical reach of many Luddite consumers.
The good folks at Boing Boing, for example, warn readers that the impact of the death of net neutrality will somehow be “hard to spot.” Julian Sanchez similarly shared his concerns that net neutrality advocates are harming the overall goal of the movement by warning of dire outcomes in the years to come. Actual harms, Sanchez insists, will be “pretty much invisible”:
I suspect the doomsday approach to net neutrality is going to backfire badly. Because if the sophisticated neutrality arguments are right, the actual harms are all going to be pretty much invisible to the end user. The visible effects will be stuff people like.
— Julian Sanchez (@normative) December 15, 2017
Of course most of the folks that really understand net neutrality have acknowledged that the harms initially may be muted. ISPs will initially want to be on their best behavior in the new year as they wait for the inevitable lawsuits against the FCC (for ignoring the public and ignoring rampant comment fraud) to shake out, wary of providing the ongoing proceedings with any ammunition. And, as we’ve noted, ISPs are well aware that even then the rules could simply be recrafted at a later date, which is why they’re pushing for a fake net neutrality law that makes federal apathy on the subject the law of the land.
But should ISPs win in the courts or on the Hill, the end result of what they’re trying to accomplish will be anything but subtle. Anybody believing otherwise doesn’t understand the full scope of what ISPs lobbyists are (so far successfully) up to here.
That’s because the FCC didn’t just repeal net neutrality. The repeal of the neutrality rules is, in fact, just one part of a much larger vision the ISPs have been lobbying for for years. And that vision includes gutting FCC oversight of broadband ISPs entirely, then shoveling any remaining oversight to an FTC whose authority over ISPs is currently being challenged in court and may soon be all but worthless. With federal oversight out of the way, ISPs have also successfully lobbied the FCC to pre-empt any states that get the crazy idea of protecting consumers from these regional telecom mono/duopolies.
Subtle, nuanced violations of net neutrality (like zero rating) were the end result of fairly tepid, inconsistent regulatory oversight of administrations’ past. But what we’re talking about here is the wholesale dismantling of adult regulatory oversight of some of the least-liked, least-competitive companies currently operating in America. Anybody that has studied history (or watched Comcast and AT&T do business) and still thinks the resulting harms will be subtle once adult supervision leaves the building simply doesn’t understand the full scale of what’s being attempted here.
As such, “net neutrality violations” will only be a small part of the problem. Net neutrality infractions are just a symptom of a lack of competition. They’re just “creative” efforts to abuse a lack of competition. With neither oversight nor competition, there’s no longer a need to be creative or measured. And the impact will be a diverse array of compounded problems, including higher prices, expanded and tightening usage caps and overage fees, even worse customer support (if that’s possible for the telecom sector) and even greater privacy abuses than we’ve grown accostomed to.
Should Comcast, AT&T and Verizon successfully win in court and make the repeal permanent, all bets are off. History tells us repeatedly that the one-two punch of regulatory capture and limited competition has very real, very obvious harms. With no rules and little to no real oversight, there will no need for the pretense we saw as ISPs attempted to creatively tap-dance around the FCC’s modest 2015 rules. If you think these companies will be reasonable and measured when they finally receive the green light, you may soon get a very intimate lesson in regulatory capture and natural monopolies.
That said, there remain reasons for hope. The FCC engaged in so much bizarre behavior, made so many procedural gaffes and leaned so heavily on bogus data that the repeal has a good shot at being overturned in the courts. And the subsequent efforts to have ISP cronies in Congress pass bogus net neutrality rules appear to be facing too much justifiable skepticism to gain much traction (though this effort will see a renewed push with multiple legislative efforts — and lots of phony, farmed support — in the new year). With a little luck and some elbow grease, the doomsday scenarios quite correctly being predicted may still not come to pass.