20 July 2017
| James Pearce
The net neutrality issue is rearing its ugly head in the US again, but it seems FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s plans to roll back rules introduced by his predecessor have received backing right from the top.
After thousands of US companies took part in a “Day of Action”, including major internet companies such as Google and Twitter, the White House was asked to outline President Donald Trump’s position on net neutrality. Press secretary Sean Spicer reportedly told stunned journalists he “didn’t know”.
Fast forward a week, and Trump’s view has been made clear – and, to the surprise of no-one, it is in favour of Pai’s proposals.
Principal deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders said the administration believed the “rules of the road” were important for companies to abide by, but added that “previous administration went about this the wrong way by imposing rules on ISPs through the FCC's Title II rulemaking power. We support the FCC chair's efforts to review and consider rolling back these rules, and believe that the best way to get fair rules for everyone is for Congress to take action and create regulatory and economic certainty."
With White House backing, and the senate led by the Republicans, who have traditionally opposed strict net neutrality rules, is there anything that can stop the repeal of Tom Wheeler’s flagship net neutrality rules?
Pai has frequently claimed that the problem with net neutrality rules inn place are that they are archaic and hurt innovations in the sector, by classify service providers (many of which are telecoms operators) as utility providers.
The rules forbid the creation of fast online traffic lanes which could potentially encourage consumers to favour faster services over alternatives. Opponents of net neutrality often claim that ISPs were adhering to the ideals of a free and open internet prior to the introduction of the rules in 2015 anyway.
It would be easy to assume all telcos would oppose any net neutrality rules. After all, introducing fast lanes, blocking certain services, or favouring your own products over those offered by rivals, could be a real money spinner. For operators who own both content arms and large backbones used in wholesale, they could control the flow of traffic end-to-end, prioritising their own services.
AT&T wants a piece of the Action
AT&T has been a vocal opponent of the current rules and was locked in a legal dispute with Wheeler’s FCC, which ultimately saw the telco defeated in court. The FCC also ruled AT&T’s DirecTV, along with rival Verizon’s go90 service, were in breach of zero-rating rules – the practice of making data free for users of certain services.
It may be a surprise to find out another name that joined the Day of Action protests was AT&T. Yes, the very same telco who sued the FCC over the current rules displayed banner ads on its website, apps and channel guides, as well as blogging about the topic.
In the blog, AT&T senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs Bob Quinn (pictured) tried to explain the telco’s motives.
“AT&T will join the “Day of Action” for preserving and advancing an open internet. This may seem like an anomaly to many people who might question why AT&T is joining with those who have differing viewpoints on how to ensure an open and free internet.
“But that’s exactly the point – we all agree that an open internet is critical for ensuring freedom of expression and a free flow of ideas and commerce in the United States and around the world. We agree that no company should be allowed to block content or throttle the download speeds of content in a discriminatory manner. So, we are joining this effort because it’s consistent with AT&T’s proud history of championing our customers’ right to an open internet and access to the internet content, applications and devices of their choosing.”
But Quinn couldn’t help but take aim at former FCC chair Wheeler’s rules, adding: “Unfortunately, in 2015, then-FCC Chairman…decided to subject broadband service to an 80-year-old law designed to set rates in the rotary-dial-telephone era. Saddling modern broadband infrastructure and investment decisions with heavy-handed, outdated telephone regulations creates an environment of market uncertainty that does little to advance internet openness. Instead, it jeopardizes the prospects for continued innovation and robust growth we have witnessed since the internet’s creation.”
So, like Trump, AT&T does want net neutrality – a free and open internet – to exist. It just doesn’t want rules in the current form.
Comcast and Verizon have issued comments on Pai’s proposals offering a similar viewpoint to that held by AT&T, with the telecoms giants asking the FCC to consider relying on a different part of federal law to safeguard the internet. The kicker? This could give them the ability to charge internet firms more for faster delivery of content – aka paid prioritisation.
This would “harm” the internet, according to the Internet Association, a loobying group for the likes of Amazon, Google, and Facebook. It said: “Paid prioritization would severely harm perhaps the most beneficial aspect of the Internet, the fact that as an open and neutral platform it allows any startup with a good idea to compete based on the quality of its idea and the service it provides, and to reach consumers across the nation.”
Though Pai has made his position – opposition to net neutrality rules in their current form – very clear, it will be months before the FCC officially rules on the future of the open internet. With Trump, some of the biggest operators in the US, and Pai himself all backing change, the end seems near for Wheeler’s approach to the rules. What comes in its place, and how that effects the internet, remains to be seen.