FCC Boss Wants 'Voluntary' ISP Net Neutrality Promises Instead Of Real Rules
from the Comcast-pinky-swear dept
Surprising nobody, FCC boss Ajit Pai has been privately meeting with large broadband providers, informing them he'll be taking an axe to net neutrality protections soon. What exactly this will look like isn't yet clear, especially given the massive support for the rules, and the fact that Pai can't just roll back net neutrality (and the FCC's Title II reclassification) without justifying it to the courts. But anonymous sources tell Reuters that Pai seemingly wants to replace real net neutrality protections with voluntary commitments from companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast:
Pai wants to overturn that reclassification, but wants internet providers to voluntarily agree to not obstruct or slow consumer access to web content, two officials said late Tuesday.
The officials briefed on the meeting said Pai suggested companies commit in writing to open internet principles and including them in their terms of service, which would make them binding.
It is unclear if regulators could legally compel internet providers to adopt open internet principles without existing net neutrality rules.
Asking growing, giant corporations with a generation of documented anti-competitive behavior under their belts to just behave is utterly adorable, and anyone who believes that's a winning strategy for consumers, startups and competitors in the Comcast era is either obtuse or being intentionally misleading.
Contrary to the bedtime stories that dollar-per-hollar ISP think tankers, lobbyists and consultants tell their children, gutting regulatory oversight of an uncompetitive market doesn't magically forge telecom Utopia. With neither competition nor functional regulatory oversight, the problems that plague the broadband industry (privacy violations, net neutrality infractions, high prices and usage caps, legendarily-bad customer service) only get worse, especially given the often absurd amount of telecom regulatory capture occurring on the state level.
And while Reuters is quick to strangely proclaim that such voluntary conditions would be "binding," most of us realize that the overlong privacy policies you sign when you buy broadband are designed almost entirely to legally protect the ISP, not you. These policies are flexibly and frequently updated and reconfigured all of the damn time to the benefit of the ISP and whatever new data collection effort they're up to this week. That these shifting, vague, ISP-written policies are the equivalent of the existing rules is a farce, as rightly pointed out by Nilay Patel over at The Verge:
"So what’s to stop Comcast from making this deal today, and then changing its terms a year from now? (It’s certainly not the presence of meaningful access competition in the marketplace!) How will the FTC track every single ISP’s terms of service language, the differences between them, and enforce any sort of consistent, reasonable policy?
Second, let’s say Pai manages to thread the needle and gets every ISP in the country to agree on the exact same open internet language in their terms of service, and further secures a commitment that the language will remain in their terms in perpetuity. Isn’t that functionally identical to... a law? Shouldn’t we just have... a law? And don’t we already have that law? What specifically is Pai trying to accomplish if he agrees that open internet principles are important?"
Let's be clear: Ajit Pai doesn't actually believe that net neutrality is important, whether that's manifest in principles, rules, or show tune. Pai doesn't believe net neutrality or a lack of competition are real problems. Nor does he believe in functional regulatory oversight of some of the largest and most anti-competitive companies in American industry. Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, believes in one thing: maximizing large ISP revenues at nearly any cost. Everything else is pretense (albeit a pretense many in the public, media and policy circles are exceptionally good at playing along with).
Pai, apparently blind to the perils of political overreach, could find himself in an untenable situation. One, reversing net neutrality will cause a policy and activist backlash that could make the SOPA uprising look like a game of grade-school patty cake. Especially given the extreme unpopularity of the recent privacy rule repeal. Two, to reverse the FCC's title II classification via FCC proceeding requires he show a court that things have changed substantially since last year's fairly overwhelming FCC appeals court victory. Since he won't be able to, expect some form of misdirection when the plan is finally revealed in either May or June.
It still seems very likely Pai may be planning to make a public stink about repealing the rules as part of a stage play. One where the FCC boss intentionally stirs the pot and plays the bad cop, and ISP-allies in Congress push a new bill pretending to save net neutrality as good cop via "compromise." And while such a bill would, like Thune's similar proposal in 2015, pay ample lip service to net neutrality (the Make American Broadband Great Again Act of 2017?), the end goal would still be to kill real rules and reduce large ISP regulatory oversight, consumer welfare and internet health be damned.
Anybody who has spent more than five minutes dealing with a large ISP should be well aware of the dangers this looming farce presents. On the plus side, since ISPs and Pai have repeatedly claimed that the net neutrality rules stifled broadband investment, Pai's decision to replace the rules with the policy equivalent of wet cardboard should at least net us all gigabit fiber connections in short order. Right? Right?