Net Neutrality Rules Die Today, But The Backlash Is Just Getting Started
from the ill-communication dept
As you probably already knew, federal net neutrality rules finally die today after the FCC’s unpopular repeal vote last December. And as you might expect, FCC boss Ajit Pai is making the rounds doing what he’s done throughout this entire process: bullshitting the public about what his historically unpopular (and misleadingly-named) “Restoring Internet Freedom” order actually does. Over in a CNET editorial for example, Pai goes so far as to proclaim that gutting these extremely popular open internet protections will somehow make everything much, much, better:
“I support a free and open internet. The internet should be an open platform where you are free to go where you want, and say and do what you want, without having to ask anyone’s permission. And under the Federal Communications Commission’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which takes effect Monday, the internet will be just such an open platform. Our framework will protect consumers and promote better, faster internet access and more competition.”
If you’ve spent any time reading Techdirt, we probably don’t need to repeat why none of this is actually true. The entire piece is a “greatest hits” of Pai’s misleading claims to date, including his insistence that the FTC will be better able to police ISP abuses (false), small ISPs were unfairly burdened by the rules (the FCC’s own data disputes this), gutting net neutrality somehow will force ISPs to be more transparent (false), and that the repeal will result in faster and cheaper broadband service (complete nonsense).
Moving forward, the ISP lobbyist narrative du jour is going to shift to claims that because the internet didn’t immediately grind to a halt after June 11, that the repeal must have been a wonderful idea. That was already something Pai and friends were claiming weeks ago despite the fact the rules hadn’t even been repealed yet. And it’s a claim you’re going to see repeated ad nauseum over the weeks and months to come by the telecom industry’s vast army of hired academics, think tankers, consultants, and other policy mouthpieces.
But despite the cocksure behavior by Pai and pals, the repeal remains on pretty shaky footing. ISPs know that, which is why they will likely try to be on their best behavior for the foreseeable future to avoid adding any fuel to the fire. After all, the repeal was based almost entirely on bogus data, was plagued with an endless array of scandals (from the FCC making up DDOS attacks to dead people’s names being hijacked to support the repeal), and the overwhelming public opposition to it makes the SOPA/PIPA backlash look like a toddler tantrum.
As such, the looming lawsuits against the FCC have a fairly decent chance of success. Those suits will likely focus on the fact that under the Administrative Procedures Act, the FCC can’t just arbitrarily reverse policy without highlighting that the market changed dramatically enough to warrant it (which is why you’ll often see the FCC falsely claiming that net neutrality devastated sector investment). With any luck, this could result in a judge overturning the repeal for being “arbitrary and capricious” (never were those words more true than here).
Meanwhile on the state level, more than half the states in the union are now pursuing some flavor of their own net neutrality protections, whether that’s via executive order (like in Montana), or new net neutrality state law (as in Oregon, Washington, and California). And while ISPs successfully lobbied the FCC to include language in the repeal “pre-empting” (read: banning) states from protecting consumers in this fashion, the FCC’s legal authority to tell states what to do on this subject is resting on some pretty sketchy legal assumptions.
And while these federal and state legal battles play out, the political backlash to this giant middle finger tech policy already isn’t likely to be subtle. Net neutrality has massive bipartisan support, and the lion’s share of the public sees this decision as what it is: a giant middle finger to free speech, healthy competition, and american consumers and small businesses. Our collective disdain for Comcast frequently bridges partisan divides, and while broadband traditionally hasn’t been an issue that sees much traction at the polls, it’s hard to think there won’t be some political price to pay for being on the wrong side of history here.
AT&T, Verizon and Comcast executives know they’ve pushed their luck with this repeal. That’s why ISP lobbyists have been pushing a bogus, loophole filled net neutrality law. A law with one real purpose: to pre-empt tougher state or federal rules, or the restoration of the 2015 rules. But because playing kissy face with Comcast is likely to be politically toxic ahead of the looming midterms, support for this head fake has been unsurprisingly hard to come by. As such, passing new rules down the road remains a very real possibility, especially with a dramatic shake up in the House or Senate.
So while many are understandably frustrated today, the elimination of the FCC’s 2015 rules shouldn’t be seen the end of net neutrality, or the end of the road. It’s more like another chapter in a story that has neither a beginning nor an end. Net neutrality isn’t something that simply “ends” with the creation or elimination of government guidelines. Net neutrality violations are only a symptom of a lack of competition in broadband and decades of regulatory capture. Were we to finally wake up to this problem and stand up to these anti-competitive duopolists, we wouldn’t need net neutrality rules in the first place.