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This is why we need real net neutrality rules

Published May 1st, 2017 3:35PM EDT
Net neutrality, Ajit Pai, the FCC and Comcast
Image: JeepersMedia

In a recent op-ed, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai trotted out one of his favorite concepts: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. His argument for repealing net neutrality rules is that nothing particularly bad has happened yet, and internet service providers can be relied on to maintain the free and open internet that we currently enjoy.

It’s a lovely concept, but it doesn’t work in the real world. ISPs might not have thrown us into a locked-off internet hellscape just yet, but a new series of problems with Comcast shows us why ISPs can’t be relied on to do anything — except for gouging customers.

Techdirt has the full story on complaints being brought against Comcast for deceptive billing practices in Oregon. Some of the state’s small county-level TV regulators have written to the Oregon Department of Justice, urging it to open an investigation into Comcast’s billing practices.

At the heart of the matter are new fees that Comcast recently introduced, described as a “broadcast TV fee.” It’s a fee that even Comcast admits goes to paying content providers for cable channels, which is exactly what your cable bundle is supposed to be paying for already.

It’s a problem because, as the regional regulators outlined in a letter, fees are supposed to be used for things outside the core contract, like government taxes or equipment rental fees. Instead, Comcast (and other cable companies) are breaking up the costs of providing a service and hiding some of them under the fold of the bill. It makes it difficult for consumers to sign up for a service and actually know how much they’ll be paying per month; worse, the fees can change arbitrarily throughout the course of a contract, with zero recourse for the customer.

So what does this have to do with net neutrality? Well, the abuse of fees is a classic case of a couple powerful companies with near-monopolies abusing their power at the expense of consumers. The FCC has a “voluntary” program that says that ISPs aren’t meant to do this kind of thing, but it lacks enforcement power to really crack down on it.

Here’s the problem: Pai’s plan to maintain net neutrality without FCC regulation relies on a “voluntary” agreement with ISPs not to screw up the internet. That doesn’t seem to be working so well right now.

But what about Pai’s main point: ISPs have not started abusing their power over the internet just yet, so we don’t need strong net neutrality rules? It’s shortsighted, and irrelevant. Countries maintain armies just in case they get invaded; you buy health insurance when you’re healthy, so that you’re ready to get things fixed when they screw up.

Pai’s plan for rolling back net neutrality rules isn’t temporary. By removing the classification of ISPs as Title II companies, he takes away his own ability to regulate internet and cable companies. Instead, he’s kinda hoping that, uh, the same companies that have screwed customers for years will voluntarily agree to play nice. Unfortunately, history isn’t on his side.