Net Neutrality Might Be a Step Closer to Reality

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Net neutrality got some new momentum yesterday from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler:

Speaking here at the 2015 International CES tech trade show, Wheeler repeatedly hinted he favors reclassification of broadband as a public utility, which would subject Internet providers to some of the same rules that govern old phone companies. The approach is already drawing heavy fire from Republicans and telecom giants who warn it will lead to burdensome regulation.

….Back in Washington, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) quickly slammed Wheeler’s comments, urging him to defer to Congress. And Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) separately on Wednesday said he’s pushed the FCC to delay its new rules until lawmakers have a chance to come up with their own solution. He expressed early interest in legislation that would specify new consumer protections without going as far as reclassifying broadband

We think a legislative route is a better way to go, and we’ve developed some language that we think addresses a lot of the concerns that Democrats have raised — but does it without that heavy regulatory approach,” the senator said.

The best solution to the problem of net neutrality would be the introduction of genuine competition among ISPs. Your local cable company might still want to discriminate against rivals in the video business—or maybe team up with one of them and degrade the others—but they’d have a hard time doing that if Google was providing great quality for every web-based video service and customers could easily switch if they got tired of poor Netflix streaming. More generally, competition would put a ceiling on all sorts of bad behavior. If your prices are high, or your service is poor, or you have a habit of playing favorites with certain sites, then you’re going to lose customers unless you get your act together. True competition would make heavy regulation of broadband mostly unnecessary.

But we don’t have true competition and we’re not likely to get it anytime soon. So we do what we always need to do when corporations enjoy monopoly positions: we regulate them. And given the noises that ISPs and other broadband suppliers have occasionally made in candid moments, strict regulation requiring equal treatment for everyone is probably in order.

This means that Wheeler’s announcement is good news. In theory, so is John Thune’s. That’s because I agree with him: the best net neutrality solution would be a legislative one. It would allow more flexibility than the FCC has under its existing Title II telephone regulations, and it would almost certainly be less vulnerable to court challenges.

But is Thune really serious about addressing “a lot of the concerns that Democrats have raised”? I guess I’m skeptical. Part of the reason is that I’ve never really understood exactly why Republicans are so dead set against net neutrality regulations. This isn’t something that would stifle competition, after all, nor is it a simple matter of siding with corporate interests that Republicans are traditionally sympathetic to. Rather, net neutrality is basically a battle between corporate behemoths: in general, content providers are for it and ISPs are against it. I’ve never quite figured out why the GOP has so steadfastly taken the side of the broadband providers in this battle.

This makes me wonder what forces are driving Thune, and whether he’s really able and willing to make substantive compromises on net neutrality. Without something to prod him, my guess is that he’d prefer doing nothing, so if Wheeler’s actions provide that prod, then three cheers for Title II regulation. It might not be ideal, but it might be just the incentive Republicans need to get serious about introducing legislation good enough to get support from both President Obama and enough Democrats to pass the Senate. We’ll see.

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