The decision by the new Federal Communications Commission chairman to abandon net neutrality regulations enacted by the Obama administration will not have the kind of impact that justifies the levels of hyperventilation among those who support stringent internet regulation.
The rules about to be rescinded were based on concerns about monopolistic practices by internet service providers (ISPs) that had not materialized into significant problems, and should they someday do so, there are mechanisms in place to address them.
That is not to say that having an unrestricted internet, sheltered from manipulation by dominant ISP companies, isn’t an important principle. In fact, there are good arguments for a regulatory posture that will allow fair and equal access to the digital superhighway. But such regulations should emanate first from actual marketplace problems that need fixing and, second, from congressional action, as opposed to unilateral rule-making by the executive branch.
Support for net neutrality regulations has grown out of concern that large ISPs, such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, are capable of restricting access by charging higher fees for large bandwidth users, such as streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. While there has been some isolated evidence of such practices being tried or contemplated, no high-profile instances have risen to the level of justifying federal rules that could provide a framework for a new regulatory bureaucracy.
Philosophically, proponents of net neutrality believe ISPs should, like public utilities, be subject to regulation that assures they operate in the public interest. We agree with that principle but differ on how best that ought to be done. The market itself will provide significant self-regulation, and existing anti-trust and fair commerce laws provide avenues of relief to aggrieved parties who could challenge in court those practices they see as restrictive.
There is understandable opposition to the decision to rescind the rule among businesses whose success depends on access to high bandwidth. A coalition of internet-based startup companies has formed to lobby against rescission, claiming that ISPs will be put in a position to discriminate against small companies offering products or services that compete against those owned by the service provider. If such predatory practices are detected among ISPs, there should be a mechanism to halt them, but the current rule was adopted out of the fear of such behavior, not its actuality.
The rule change will have virtually no direct impact on individual household internet consumers, which may explain why polls show little public concern over the issue. A recent survey indicated that only 46 percent of Americans are even aware of the controversy. More awareness is certainly justified, though, if only because the internet has become such a critical component of modern life. The online universe is now a principal avenue for free speech, and any behavior by the stewards of the web to restrict, manipulate or narrow free expression should not be condoned.
We would hope and expect that abandoning current FCC rules will not mean the end of the discussion of how best to make sure the online world serves public benefit and allows for fair commerce among competitors.