By Anders Gyllenhaal
It’s been portrayed as a standoff between giants, with tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Netflix on one side, and service providers like Comcast and Verizon on the other.
But we should all tune in as the Federal Communications Commission closes the comment period on net neutrality in two weeks and begins to rewrite the rules of the internet.
The changes could affect the cost of your smartphone service, the quality of your internet reception and, most importantly, who controls what you can view, read and download. It could also help decide how the First Amendment applies on digital frontiers.
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You might not learn that from the dueling campaigns the two sides are waging as they lobby for their positions. They’ve swamped the FCC with a record 20 million comments, boiled complex issues down to competing slogans and shined more heat than light on the topic.
Here’s a look at what a wide collection of experts say about the net neutrality decision and what it’s likely to mean for you.
What’s at stake?
On the surface, the proposed change is about internet traffic: Should we do away with current net neutrality rules that require all internet traffic to move the same way and that prevent service providers from blocking or slowing online content delivery? And do we move to a free-market policy that allows faster transmissions and better online positioning for companies willing to pay more?
These turn out to be loaded questions. The impacts are far-reaching and would expand the powers of the companies controlling pipelines that are the spine of the digital economy.
Over the decade that net neutrality has been taking shape, the importance and role of the internet have expanded enormously. From a tool for email, Facebook posts and movies, it’s become the conduit for retail, entertainment, media, banking, even law and medicine.
So when the Trump administration reshuffled the FCC, which immediately announced it would revisit rules adopted in 2015, the two camps began what has turned into one of the most expensive and overheated campaigns in the short history of modern technology.
It’s partly about politics: The right and left quickly fell into place on opposite sides. Liberals – drummed along by comedian John Oliver on HBO – lined up with Google, Amazon, Netflix and the tech camp under the flag of keeping an “open internet.” Conservatives sided with the cable and service providers in what proponents call “restoring internet freedom.’’
It’s also about money, and how much companies on the service and content side share in the enormous revenues from the internet.
Why should I care?
The internet touches every aspect of our lives, so changes to the rules will affect you on several levels.
The most obvious are the quality, costs and options for wireless, cable and broadband service for phones, TV, computers, e-readers, digital assistants and whatever comes next.
Part of the argument for changing the rules is that one-size-fits-all transmission doesn’t allow for enough investment, speed and innovation to keep up with technology.
“A lot of people fail to understand how many billions of dollars have to go into building out these networks,’’ said Randolph May, president of The Free State Foundation, a nonprofit that favors free-market solutions and has done research on behalf of the change.
Others insist the cable and phone companies are having no trouble investing to expand the infrastructure – and that government oversight and enforcement are needed to protect all of us.
Kate Forscey, associate policy counsel at Public Knowledge, one of the leading pro-net neutrality advocacy groups, said the real problem is a lack of competition.
“When there’s more competition, we’ll see more pricing options and better quality,’’ she said. “One of the reasons we need (net neutrality) protection is because the competition isn’t there.’’
That raises another issue to watch: the progress internet providers are making in expanding broadband and wireless service. The U.S. may be home to the world’s tech leaders, but we rank only in the middle of the pack globally on internet speed and quality.
Here’s where pro-change advocates have an important point. Too many rural areas have weak service and little competition. About half the country has just two full-service internet providers, and 40 percent of rural households have no access to high-speed internet providers at all.
“The internet is not a privilege. It’s not a luxury,’’ said Doug Brake, senior analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which is pushing for change. “You need it to apply for jobs, to apply for health care. It’s necessary for kids to do their homework. Broadband is needed to participate in life.’’
What will it mean for my pocketbook?
Although the FCC said it intends to alter the rules, it won’t fill in specifics until probably this fall, after the comments are analyzed. That makes it hard to pin down precise effects on cost, although that hasn’t prevented predictions.
Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor who came up with the phrase “net neutrality,” said it’s clear the rule changes would bring price hikes in a betrayal of the populist rhetoric that helped decide the election.
“Did Trump voters really vote for higher cable bills?’’ he asked in a New York Times opinion piece the week the FCC announced its review.
“Cable costs have gone up year after year, by multiples of the cost of living index,’’ said Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner and now a special adviser to Common Cause. “The more monopoly power you have, the more prices are going to go up.’’
Opponents of net neutrality say the business model wouldn’t change with the new rules, so rates should remain stable. “I don’t think you would see very much difference,’’ said Daniel Lyons, a professor at Boston College specializing in law and telecommunications.
The more likely outcome, though, is that prices will go up for some, and perhaps down for others, while consumers have more options based on how and how much they use the internet.
A key part of the likely change will be “paid-prioritization,’’ which means companies could pay for faster and dedicated bandwidth as well as better positioning for their content – the same way a Google ad goes to the top of your search listing. Those costs are almost certainly going to come back to consumers in one way or another.
How does the First Amendment figure in?
The most far-reaching question is what the changes would mean for the flow of information the democracy relies on to be informed.
If companies are charged for superior services and positioning, does that create a new and uneven playing field based on ability to pay? That would make it harder for newcomers, perhaps the next Netflix, to make its way. It would also tend to solidify the place of the existing tech establishment.
First Amendment arguments have been raised by both sides.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., called net neutrality “absolutely the First Amendment issue of our time,’’ referring broadly to how open and egalitarian the internet would remain.
Others see an entirely different First Amendment case to be made on behalf of service providers. Their roles would change from a kind of utility to a form of publisher, giving them rights to do as they please with the content they provide.
“The ISP could have a First Amendment right to determine what goes over its connections,’’ said Justin Hurwitz, a law professor at University of Nebraska with extensive telecommunication expertise. “There are important First Amendment issues here.”
Whether First Amendment law itself applies, questions loom large on how the new rules would preserve free speech, prevent carriers from suppressing views and keep corporate interests in check.
There are serious consumer issues at play.
Robert Frieden, Penn State University professor of telecommunications and law
This is where volume starts to rise.
“We’d just be turning our democracy over to a handful of companies whose only motivation is to please Wall Street,’’ said Copps, the former commissioner and interim chair at the FCC.
Service providers on occasion have shown themselves willing to slow traffic of a competitor, highlight content they create or have an interest in and pressure companies when negotiations are underway.
“If you don’t have a cop on the beat, if you have an FCC that is a caretaker, you’re going to embolden these carriers to engage in practices that could harm consumers,’’ said Robert Frieden, a Penn State University professor of telecommunications and law. “There are serious consumer issues at play.’’
Yet instances of misdeeds by cable and phone companies have been rare, and if they violate the rules, existing state and federal consumer protection laws and fair trade standards would apply. Proponents of change say the open market will do much to maintain fairness.
“I’d much rather have companies work it out amongst themselves in the marketplace,’’ said Christopher Yoo, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and leading authority on technology. “The last thing we want is to have regulatory intervention that results in decisions that create disincentive for investment.’’
With so much at stake, each side complains about misinformation coming from the other.
Indeed, few voices in this debate are objective. Many – whether in think tanks or universities – accept money from companies whose financial fortunes are tied to the outcome.
A Wall Street Journal investigation last month uncovered millions of dollars in payments from Google to professors doing research on regulatory issues the company cared about – often without disclosing the payments. Cable and phone companies are funding their own experts, sometimes, like in politics, from organizations on both sides of the issue.
So bring a dose of skepticism – and tune into this debate. With the comment period ending Aug. 30, the FCC will work on new rules under a timetable stretching into the fall. Proposed changes will be made public three weeks before the commission takes action.
All signs are that the FCC will give service providers more flexibility and go to lighter oversight. But the outpouring of comments – five times as heavy as the last review of this kind, with huge numbers in favor of keeping things as they are – shows there’s deep concern about doing away entirely with net neutrality.
This decision isn’t just about the giants of the internet. It’s about the communities and individuals they serve. Both sides have some valid points: The reach and quality of internet service does not match its importance. We need more competition. The FCC still needs to regulate an industry that shapes both our economy and our democracy.
Compromise is hard to come by today, but the tech and communications fields would be wise to show how it’s done on a topic so central to the health of the nation.
Anders Gyllenhaal, senior editor at McClatchy, can be reached at Agyllenhaal@McClatchy.com
Here is the FCC website where comments can be filed. The commission staff is available to explain the procedures and walk through how to use the electronic filing system.