The Federal Communications Commission will soon vote on whether to repeal an Obama-era rule classifying internet service providers as “common carriers.” That rule was put in place to achieve net neutrality, an attractive-sounding goal that many Americans — millennials especially — reflexively support.
Voices as diverse as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Joplin Globe and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have opposed repeal of the Obama-era rule.
Unfortunately, few people who express support for net neutrality understand all it entails. Even fewer recognize the significant dangers of pursuing net neutrality using the means the Obama-era FCC selected. All many know is that they like neutrality generally and that smart-sounding celebrities like John Oliver support the Obama-era rule. They really need to know more.
First, it’s important to understand what a policy of net neutrality entails. In essence, it prevents ISPs from providing faster or better transmission of some internet content, even where the favored content provider is willing to pay for prioritization.
That sounds benign — laudable, even — until one considers all that such a policy prevents. Under strict net neutrality, an ISP couldn’t prioritize content transmission in which congestion delays ruin the user experience (say, an internet videoconference between a telemedicine system operated by the University of Missouri hospital and a rural resident of Dent County) over transmissions in which delays are less detrimental (say, downloads from a photo-sharing site).
Strict net neutrality would also preclude a mobile broadband provider from exempting popular content providers from data caps. Indeed, T-Mobile was hauled before the FCC to justify its popular “Binge On” service, which offered cost-conscious subscribers unlimited access to Netflix, ESPN and HBO.
The fact is, ISPs have an incentive to manage their traffic in whatever way most pleases subscribers. The vast majority of Americans have a choice of ISPs, so managing content in any manner that adversely affects the consumer experience would hurt business. ISPs are also motivated to design subscription packages that consumers most desire. They shouldn’t have to seek government approval of innovative offerings.
For evidence that competition protects consumers from harmful instances of non-neutral network management, consider the record. The commercial internet was born, thrived, and became the brightest spot in the American economy without formal net neutrality rules. History provides little reason to believe that the parade of horribles net neutrality advocates imagine will ever materialize.
Indeed, in seeking to justify its net neutrality policies, the Obama-era FCC could come up with only four instances of harmful non-neutral network management over the entire history of the commercial internet. That should come as no surprise. Background antitrust rules, in place long before the internet was born, forbid the speculative harms net neutrality advocates envision.
Even if net neutrality regulation were desirable as a policy matter, the means by which the FCC secured it was entirely inappropriate. Before it adopted the current approach, which reclassified ISPs as common carriers subject to Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, the FCC was crafting a narrower approach using authority granted by the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
It abruptly changed course after President Barack Obama, reeling from a shellacking in the 2014 midterm elections, sought to shore up his base by posting a video calling for “the strongest possible rules” on net neutrality, including Title II reclassification. Prodded by the president, the supposedly independent commissioners abandoned their consensus that Title II was too extreme and voted along party lines to treat the internet as a utility.
Title II reclassification has resulted in the sort of “Mother, may I?” regulatory approach that impedes innovation and investment. In the first half of 2015, as the commission was formulating its new Title II approach, spending by ISPs on capital equipment fell by an average of 8 percent. That was only the third time in the history of the commercial internet that infrastructure investment fell from the previous year. The other two times were in 2001, following the dot.com bust, and 2009, after the 2008 financial crash and ensuing recession. For those remote communities in Missouri still looking for broadband to reach their doorsteps, government policies need to incentivize more investment, not restrict it.
To enhance innovation and encourage broadband deployment, the FCC should reverse its damaging Title II order and leave concerns about non-neutral network management to antitrust law. It was doing just fine.
Thom Lambert, a law professor at the University of Missouri, is the author of "How to Regulate: A Guide for Policymakers" (Cambridge University Press 2017).