In Our View: Protect Net Neutrality

FCC chairman’s plan to undo rules will hurt small businesses, consumers

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While “net neutrality” has entered the lexicon, the concept remains convoluted for most Americans.

So, before getting to the explanation, we believe the Federal Communications Commission’s apparent intention to do away with net neutrality for internet connections would be harmful to free and open communication. It would benefit large communications companies while likely providing few benefits for consumers.

Of course, there is room for disagreement with this position. One thing Americans can be certain of is that net-neutrality rules are neither the panacea that is trumpeted by proponents nor the disease that opponents claim they are. But, when facing a convoluted argument, the FCC should err in favor of consumers and retain the rules that are in place. Barring that, Congress must get involved in order to codify laws that guarantee protections for internet users.

Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, seemingly is intent upon rolling back net-neutrality rules put in place by the Obama administration in 2015. He revealed his plan last week, and the proposal could be approved at the FCC’s Dec. 14 meeting. The change would give companies that are the gate-keepers of the internet new power to prioritize, block, or discriminate against particular websites delivered by their networks.

Admittedly, this is particularly disconcerting in the era of a president who rails against news he perceives as negative. Donald Trump’s constant and unfounded claims of “fake news” are dictatorial in nature and create genuine concern about whether he would attempt to coerce internet providers to block any website that dare criticize him. As a possible harbinger, the Justice Department’s targeting of a proposed merger between AT&T and Time Warner — a merger that includes CNN — smacks of selective prosecution driven by Trump’s ongoing feud with the cable network.

Trump’s persistent attempts to undermine the foundations of our democracy immediately bring suspicion upon any federal action regarding how information is generated and shared. In the process, that taints the proposal to end net neutrality.

As Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., an outspoken critic of plans to abolish net neutrality, explained: “If Chairman Pai has his way with the FCC’s net-neutrality rules, the FCC will create a two-tiered internet, allowing Fortune 500 companies to pay for special internet access. This will leave slow lanes for small businesses, and consumers, imperiling the access and innovation that drives the internet economy. This is unacceptable. All consumers and all innovators deserve equal access to an open internet.”

Proponents of rolling back net neutrality claim that the guidelines amount to government micro-management of internet services. Yet, their arguments fail to explain why this is a negative; governments at the federal, state and local levels maintain strong control over public utilities, regulating how services are provided and how user fees are calculated. The same should apply to the internet, where service has become so pervasive and so economically essential that the utilities analogy is a perfect fit.

As Bloomberg.com wrote editorially about the FCC’s pending action: “Some key details are still hazy. But one thing is clear: This is a crazy way to set policy.”

Indeed. Rather than creating a pendulum that constantly changes the rules for established internet companies and entrepreneurs, federal regulators should focus upon stability for providers and, more important, consumers.