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Tech vs. Telecom: Closing Arguments in Net Neutrality Battle

It’s a clash of corporate titans over the future of internet governance.

by Sam Gustin
Jul 18 2017, 3:11pm

As the deadline for comments in the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality proceeding passed on Monday night, the tech and telecom industries laid out sharply different visions of the future of internet policy. Their filings were part of more than 8 million public comments submitted to the agency, a new record.

Tech giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter urged the FCC to maintain its existing net neutrality protections, arguing that strong government oversight is necessary to preserve the internet as an open platform for innovation and economic growth. Telecom firms like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon, meanwhile, reiterated their view that the Obama-era 2015 open internet rules amount to an egregious government overreach that has stifled broadband investment.

The playing field is anything but level. Trump's FCC chief, former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai, has long made clear that he agrees with the arguments advanced by his former employer and other telecom firms. The Silicon Valley giants know this, which is why they are rallying as a community to defend rules they feel are necessary to ensure internet freedom and openness.

"The facts are clear: the 2015 Open Internet order is working and does not need to be changed," Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, said in a statement. The Internet Association represents companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Netflix. (The group's full FCC comment can be found here.)

"There is zero evidence that the [2015] order has harmed the internet economy," Beckerman added, directly contradicting a main argument advanced by Big Telecom. "In fact, we have strong evidence showing that ISPs, consumers, and internet companies of all sizes are thriving under the order. Rolling back net neutrality rules would stifle innovation and choice online."

The 2015 Open Internet order codified net neutrality by prohibiting internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon from blocking, throttling, or otherwise discriminating against legal online content and services. The order also barred ISPs from charging internet companies for prioritized network access, a practice known as "paid prioritization" that open internet advocates say could turn the internet into something like cable TV, in which content companies must pay the equivalent of "carriage fees" in order to reach consumers.

"Strong, enforceable net neutrality rules mean that consumers, not ISP gatekeepers, decide who wins and loses on the internet," said Beckerman. "No one wants to live in a world where the internet is like cable TV and consumers have to pay to access only a curated version of the internet."

"Opponents of the existing rules hypocritically proclaim their worry about 'government regulation of the internet.'"

The nation's ISPs hate the 2015 policy, because it reclassified them as "common carriers" under Title II of the Communications Act, a regulatory framework originally developed in the 1930s to ensure that traditional phone service was accessible to everyone. The ISPs argue that Title II reclassification is inappropriate for the 21st century internet economy, and has dissuaded them from investing aggressively in broadband infrastructure, a claim that is strongly disputed by open internet advocates.

In a statement, AT&T insisted that it supports an "open internet" but said that "we continue to oppose Title II as an unprecedented regulatory overreach for which there was no economic or marketplace justification." Similarly, Comcast said that Title II is "entirely unnecessary, outdated, and imposes substantial costs that undermine investment and innovation and undercut efforts to bridge the digital divide and deploy broadband to all Americans."

Given Pai's control over the FCC's agenda and the GOP's majority status at the agency, many experts believe that he will eventually be successful in rolling back the 2015 policy. But Pai has not yet indicated what, if anything, he will seek to replace that policy with. Press reports have suggested that Pai may favor a system in which ISPs make voluntary open internet commitments that could be enforced by a different agency, the Federal Trade Commission. But net neutrality advocates, including Democratic FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, call such an after-the-fact enforcement regime wholly inadequate.

For years, net neutrality was a fairly esoteric issue mainly of interest to technologists, network engineers, and policy lawyers. But former President Obama's 2014 endorsement of Title II reclassification thrust the issue onto the political stage, giving Republicans who were predisposed to fight every aspect of Obama's agenda another opportunity to demonstrate their opposition to the former president.

Unfortunately, as a result, net neutrality has become a political football on Capitol Hill, with most Democrats supporting the current rules, and most Republicans opposing them as an attempt by the federal government to "control" the internet. But outside of the Beltway, most Americans, including many Trump voters, support the existing policy, according to recent public opinion polling. It's unclear, however, what effect such polling data will have on FCC Chairman Pai, who is an unelected official and therefore is not directly accountable to voters.

"Opponents of the existing rules hypocritically proclaim their worry about 'government regulation of the internet,'" Ed Black, president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, said in a statement. CCIA represents many Silicon Valley giants like Google and Netflix.

"However, it is the preservation of these legal protections for net neutrality that prevent a few powerful companies from using their gatekeeper status to privately regulate the internet in discriminatory ways for their parochial benefit," Black said. "CCIA is deeply concerned that the FCC is planning to take action that harms consumers and businesses to pursue a politically-charged agenda that will create greater business uncertainty and undermine the broader Internet ecosystem."

The FCC, which declined to comment on the various net neutrality submissions, will now scrutinize the filings the agency has received. Reply comments, in which the various stakeholders aim to rebut the arguments of their opponents, are due on August 16. After that, the FCC will likely take several months before reaching a final decision on whether to scrap the existing net neutrality rules.

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