Choosing sides in fight on net neutrality

Stakes are huge for service providers, U.S. consumers

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President Donald Trump’s deregulation efforts have touched the cars and trucks Americans may buy in the years ahead, how the electricity in our homes and businesses is generated and, in the week ahead, how we connect to the internet.

According to multiple media reports, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to release details of a proposal to end net neutrality as we know. Net neutrality is the requirement that internet service providers treat all online traffic the same. It bans companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast from offering fast lanes for preferred customers. Amazon can’t pay a fee to service providers that prioritizes its movie streaming over, say, a local craft store.

When an Obama-era FCC adopted the net neutrality rule, it based its decision on the authority of the agency to regulate internet service providers like utilities. Throwing out that foundation, as this week’s plan may do, could scuttle efforts to have service providers be more transparent and responsive when their service is interrupted. How important is this? Just ask the millions of customers left offline for days and weeks in Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. With companies relying on the internet to process credit and debit cards, communicate with vendors and manage payroll, going offline is expensive.

The stakes over neutrality are big for the internet service providers. Wiping away the requirement could allow them to create tiered pricing and open new revenue possibilities. But it also may bring the threat of state-level rules, further complicating compliance and raising costs.

The Trump administration has been successful already in turning over broadband privacy rules enacted under his predecessor. The original rule would have required internet service providers to get their customers’ approval to share browsing history and other private online data. It never went into effect and it won’t. Doing away with the privacy rules doesn’t mean companies can buy your browser history by name. But they can know the type of person you are and the types of places you go online.

Supporters of fewer rules for internet providers argue that it will unleash new innovations and products.

If net neutrality dies, it will be up to customers and shareholders to hold those companies accountable.