Last year, the telecoms industry scored a huge win by pushing net neutrality repeal through the Federal Communications Commission. The rule change means that internet service providers are no longer effectively regulated by the FCC, and the enforcement of net neutrality is left up to a toothless Federal Trade Commission and a pinky-swear promise not to be evil.
The industry framed net neutrality repeal as “restoring internet freedom,” and said that it wouldn’t change anything: No paid fast lanes, no throttling, just a more friendly regulatory environment. But just months later behind closed doors, the story is starting to change.
At an industry event this week reported by Broadcasting Cable, Comcast senior EVP David Cohen told an audience that the industry should seek to legalize “pro-consumer” paid prioritization, which is the first gentle push down a slipperly slope that will undoubtedly end in billions of dollars in profit for the telecoms industry:
He said there has been a recognition that “something might come along that is not anticompetitive, that is pro-consumer, and that is a specialized service not available to every user of the internet that would be in the public interest.”
His point was that there was a conversation to be had about pro-consumer, non-anticompetitive services if folks would get past the politics.
“If rational people will sit down and talk about this, they can even resolve what has become a third rail around bipartisan network neutrality legislation,” he said. He noted that Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee floated network neutrality legislation that included an absolute ban on paid prioritization and was yet to have any Democrat be willing to discuss it.
Examples like remote surgery are a favorite for ISPs, because they’re a no-brainer argument for most of the population. The difficulty, of course, is where to draw the line. ISPs don’t seem to be specifically arguing for a tightly-worded exemption for “life-saving technology” or similar; instead, they’re saying that regulations need to flexible, all while pushing for the weakest possible regulator so that missteps won’t be punished.
The use of “pro-consumer” to describe paid prioritization is also deliberately weaselly. There are plenty of policies that would be pro-consumer but anti-net-neutrality in the grander scheme of things. Sponsored data, where a company can pay for its data to not count against a consumer’s data cap, is an excellent example. Consumers generally like programs that let them watch TV over mobile data without it counting against their cap, but policies like that are punitive to startups, which can’t afford to spend the same amount as a company like Netflix or Spotify (or, for that matter, AT&T or Comcast). It’s easy for a policy to be pro-consumer in the short run, but detrimental to competition (and therefore ultimately consumers) in the long run. That’s why a strong regulator to enforce net neutrality principles is so important.