Editorial: Pay-to-Play Comes to the Internet

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission approved the Open Internet Order or "net neutrality," taking out the chance for content providers to receive favoritism. The new FCC majority, led by Ajit Pai, wants to change that.

by Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier / December 1, 2017
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(TNS) — We’ve come a long way since the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Network created the Internet, which was opened to commercial use in 1993 — four years after the invention of the World Wide Web.

A collective of companies now operates the Internet. Anti-trust agreements ensure no single entity can control it. Internet service providers connect “the last mile” from its backbone to residents and businesses.

In 2015, the Democratic majority on the Federal Communications Commission approved the Open Internet Order or “net neutrality.” ISPs, which transmit data over Internet's “pipes,” couldn’t play favorites with content providers — information, commerce or otherwise — by blocking or throttling content or speeding it up for others.

The new Republican FCC majority led by Ajit Pai, a former Verizon attorney, wants to end it, claiming net neutrality is a government regulation inhibiting innovation. The formal decision will come in mid-December.

The issue pits telecommunications giants like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast against Internet-based or related companies like Alphabet (parent of Google and YouTube), Netflix, Twitter, Apple and Microsoft.

The telecoms want “pay-to-play,” permitting unregulated rate charges for Internet “fast lanes” and greater data usage.

Net neutrality puts them under Title II of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, regulating telecommunications services. They maintain Title I, which “lightly regulates” “information services” is more appropriate.

The TCA also was designed to encourage competition and construction of “last-mile” high-speed, fiber-optic cable by the telecoms. Yet since its passage, the telecoms have dropped the ball. The U.S. has gone from being an Internet leader to laggard, ranking 17th globally in speed, according to Akamai, which rates digital traffic.

Instead, the telecoms seemed more intent on stifling competition, getting some states to prohibit municipalities from developing competing high-speed networks, while the telecoms kept their archaic copper-wire connections in place. Iowa resisted that pressure. Cedar Falls Utilities has been in the vanguard of high-speed municipal systems.

Now the telecoms are increasingly in the content business, giving them an incentive to favor their companies over the competitors. Comcast owns NBC Universal, while Verizon purchased Yahoo and AOL. Pending its Justice Department battle, AT&T hopes to buy Time Warner, which includes HBO, CNN, TBS, TNT, Warner Bros. movies and a stake in Hulu.

Timothy Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who invented the web, recently made the case in USA Today for net neutrality.

“Net neutrality is the fundamental principle that all content should be treated equally online,” he wrote. “It’s what ensures those millions of local businesses can compete on an equal footing with corporate giants. It’s what stops inteInternet and cable providers from slowing down services for those who don’t pay a premium, or blocking content that doesn’t boost their own bottom lines.”

We’ve been sympathetic with that perspective, while recognizing realities.

The telecoms contend they are trying to avert Internet bottlenecks, a realistic concern as more people cut cable cords in favor of the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime or less expensive live-streaming from Hulu, Sling and others.

In addition, high-definition video quality has improved dramatically, creating the need for greater bandwidth.

We agree with Pai that a mechanism is needed so the telecoms invest in infrastructure and innovation, but the proposed rules are a propensity for mischief based on promises.

The ISPs would promise to notify the public if they blocked or throttled content on websites or gave preferential treatment to others, notably those they own or have a stake in. Of course, that could be in small print on some obscure website.

The FCC and Federal Trade Commission, which investigates unfair and deceptive business practices but is currently prohibited from overseeing the ISPs, would review the disclosures. The FTC would determine if the actions are anti-competitive or anti-consumer.

Pai believes the FTC will protect consumers and small business. But Terrell McSweeney, a Democratic FTC commissioner is wary, telling Wired it lacks authority to issue industrywide rules and may not be able to use antitrust law against broadband providers giving preferential treatment to their content or partners. Among consumer concerns is that the telecoms may start bundling websites — like cable companies bundle channels — offering different levels of service with high-speed packages for the likes of Netflix and Hulu, while relegating others to the slow lane, or putting limits on data used before incurring extra charges.

About the only thing assured after net neutrality’s demise is that you’ll be paying more — either to your ISP or to the likes of Netflix, Hulu and other data-heavy content providers who would pass along their higher costs.

©2017 Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.