Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of archival stories.
With the selection of Ajit Pai to chair the Federal Communications Commission, President Trump has elevated a major foe of net neutrality from the minority on the commission to its head. Pai, already a commissioner and therefore needing no Senate approval to become its chair, would need to be reconfirmed by the end of 2017 to continue to serve.
Public interest versus private profit
The basic conflict is a result of the history of the internet, and the telecommunications industry more generally, writes internet law scholar Allen Hammond at Santa Clara University:
Like the telephone, broadcast and cable predecessors from which they evolved, the wire and mobile broadband networks that carry internet traffic travel over public property. The spectrum and land over which these broadband networks travel are known as rights of way. Congress allowed each network technology to be privately owned. However, the explicit arrangement has been that private owner access to the publicly owned spectrum and rights of way necessary to exploit the technology is exchanged for public access and speech rights.
The government is trying to balance competing interests in how the benefits of those network services. Should people have unfiltered access to any and all data services, or should some internet providers be allowed to charge a premium to let companies reach audiences more widely and more quickly?
Pushing back against corporate control
There is fairly limited competition, it turns out. Across America, most people have very little – if any – choice in who their internet provider is. Communication studies professor Amanda Lotz at the University of Michigan explains the concerns raised by a monopoly marketplace and the potential effects of turning back the current policy of net neutrality:
The rules were created out of concern internet service providers would reserve high-speed internet lanes for content providers who could pay for it, while relegating to slower speeds those that didn’t – or couldn’t, such as libraries, local governments and universities. Net neutrality is also important for innovation, because it protects small and start-up companies’ access to the massive online marketplace of internet users.
In this view, the internet is a public utility that should be preserved and protected for all to access freely.
Getting around the rules
Even with net neutrality rules in place, companies were pushing the boundaries of what is legal. In recent years, many mobile internet providers have been simultaneously imposing and creating exemptions from limits on how much data their customers can use in a given month. Called “zero rating policies,” these exemptions omit from the monthly cap certain types of data, or certain companies’ data. For example, T-Mobile customers can listen endlessly to Spotify internet radio regardless of how much high-speed data they use for other purposes. Information systems scholars Liangfei Qiu, Soohyun Cho and Subhajyoti Bandyopadhyay at the University of Florida examined the effects of those policies on the marketplace:
At first glance, zero rating plans would seem to be good for consumers because they allow users to consume traffic for free. But our research suggests the variety of content may be reduced, which in the long run harms consumers.
Their findings suggest that keeping the internet open would be best for the public.
Regulation isn’t always a good solution
However, regulating with that sort of goal could be risky because of the fast-changing nature of the internet, writes technology policy scholar Scott Wallsten at Georgetown:
Today’s business models may not be viable in the future. Net neutrality rules run counter to that reality by freezing in place a particular industry structure, making it difficult for firms to respond to underlying changes in technology and consumer demand over time.
Pai may be getting additional allies
Nevertheless, as the Trump administration takes shape, Pai will likely find himself with strong support in the FCC. Digital communications scholar Luis Hestres at the University of Texas-San Antonio noted that Trump himself appears to be an outspoken opponent of net neutrality. As Hestres wrote,
His appointments look like bad news for supporters of an open internet. President-elect Trump has named Jeffrey Eisenach and Mark Jamison to oversee the transition at the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees internet communications policy. Both are staff members at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and former lobbyists for major telecommunications companies. Both are also vocal opponents of net neutrality. Also on his FCC transition team are Roslyn Layton, another staff member at AEI and vocal net neutrality opponent, and North Carolina telecom entrepreneur David Morken.
The decisions they make will shape the internet for years to come.
A vestige of the 20th century
Whether net neutrality rises or falls, however, the debate will continue. The rules and frameworks the government uses to try to regulate the internet are long out of date, and were written to address a very different time, when landline telephone service was not yet ubiquitous. Boston University communication and law professor T. Barton Carter explained what the real solution is:
The laws governing the internet were written in the early 20th century, decades before the companies that dominate the internet like Google and YouTube even existed. The only solution is a complete rewrite of the 80-year-old Communications Act – unfortunately a fool’s errand in today’s Washington.
Can net neutrality even happen?
And maintaining net neutrality itself could be a major challenge, if not a fool’s errand, thanks to important technical details that could make the ideal impossible, writes University of Michigan computer scientist Harsha Madhyastha:
If one user is streaming video and another is backing up data to the cloud, should both of them have their data slowed down? Or would users’ collective experience be best if those watching videos were given priority? That would mean slightly slowing down the data backup, freeing up bandwidth to minimize video delays and keep the picture quality high.
Then again, just because an ideal can’t be achieved doesn’t mean it’s not worth aiming for.