“Just trust that the companies will tell us when they do something bad. If they do, we might be able to tell them not to do it any more.”
This is the spirit of how the internet will be regulated under new rules put forward by Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai. The rules, released on Wednesday, undo the strong net neutrality protections put in place under the Barack Obama administration—and then even go beyond that.
Here is how the internet would be regulated under Pai’s proposal:
There would be no more rules against paid prioritization, blocking websites, or other similar activities. Internet providers would be able to do whatever they want.
If internet providers decide to do something like give preferential treatment to one company in exchange for cash, they would theoretically have to report that publicly, though there are major loopholes there.
Once reported, the Federal Trade Commission would decide if these moves were “anticompetitive.”
If the FTC didn’t like what was happening, it could make suggestions to Congress or maybe bring a lawsuit.
If the FCC are the cops, out trying to prevent and/or quickly respond to crime, the FTC is the court system—slow, methodical, and generally not that in touch with what’s happening out in the real world.
Pai’s proposal strips the FCC (the cops) of any responsibility to stop companies from messing with the internet. Instead, it’s relying entirely on internet providers to voluntarily report what they’re doing to the FTC (the courts), which then might take action. Not even people at the FTC think this is a great idea.
Then there are the loopholes, and by “loopholes” we mean “tunnels big enough to drive a truck through.” The new rules dramatically reduce the transparency into what ISPs are doing with their networks, removing reporting requirements and instead only asking them to reveal what’s going on when they believe it might be of interest to the FTC.
It also allows for internet providers to manipulate their networks in two ways: interconnection and “reasonable network management.” Interconnection is the physical act of two networks plugging into each other so that data flows more efficiently. “Reasonable network management” refers to an internet provider’s handling of data so that everything flows more efficiently.
These sound innocuous enough, but they’re exactly what will open the door to corporate control. Internet companies could conceivably excuse a variety of activities under the guise of network management such as creating a separate lane for bandwidth-intensive streaming video from a company willing to pay for the improved service. They could also charge content providers for interconnection, which is what happened to Netflix before strong net neutrality rules were put in place.
Bringing this all together: The FCC has eliminated all the rules on internet providers, removed any transparency requirements on internet providers, reestablished loopholes that allow internet providers to manipulate their networks in a way that would destroy net neutrality, and put any responsibility to make sure the internet isn’t ruined on an agency that has no expertise or tools to do so.
Looked at in total, it’s hard not to believe the worst about Pai’s rules. This FCC chairman has been widely accused of being in the pocket of the big internet companies, but so was his predecessor Tom Wheeler. Wheeler, however, proved critics wrong by showing himself to be a thoughtful policy wonk who pushed hard for the strong net neutrality rules advocated by Obama, consumer advocates, and most anyone not affiliated with internet providers.
Pai, however, has instituted just about anything and everything those telecom providers have called for. Now, he’s poised to put in place rules that would not only relieve them of the net neutrality rules Wheeler put in place, but also create an ideal environment in which internet providers will be able to destroy the fairness that had been inherent in the internet.
The proposal has a high chance of getting through the FCC, though it will face lawsuits thereafter. There’s also a chance that pressure from Congress could push Pai to back down—activists have been organizing a campaign to get people to call their representatives. They’ll need to be inundated with calls for there to be any chance at stopping the new rules.
The FCC is set to meet on December 14 for that vote.