Columns » Ernest Dumas

Not net neutral

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The Washington swamp that Donald Trump was going to drain gets deeper and wider every week.

In a few weeks, if not days — as soon as the courts settle the squabble over who appoints the interim director of the agency — the president will redeem his promise to the financial industry to eliminate the consumer protections enacted by Congress after the 2008 banking collapse and recession. He will have someone in charge of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who will have in mind the best interests not of consumers and clients, but of the financial industry, which he tweeted this week had been "devastated" by the bureau's efforts to protect consumers. He promised to bring Wall Street — too-big-to-fail banks perhaps — "back to life."

But that's not the deregulation that consumers — all of you — ought to be worried about this week. Trump's choice to chair the Federal Communications Commission, Agit Pai, the former general counsel at Verizon Communications, announced that the FCC would vote next month to scrap net neutrality, the Obama-era rule that prevents Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and other big internet providers from discriminating against certain online content and services while favoring their own. Pai's rule also will block state and local governments from adopting their own rules requiring internet providers — commonly called ISPs — to be fair and nondiscriminatory.

Does that sound like draining the swamp?

The net neutrality debate, like every dispute these days, became a party argument, especially after Barack Obama campaigned on guaranteeing neutrality on the internet and then got it implemented in 2015. Perversely, it was Obama who first appointed Pai to the FCC, on the recommendation of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It was a Republican slot. Trump reappointed him and made him chairman.

The idea behind net neutrality was that neutrality encouraged entrepreneurs and innovators, which everyone agreed was right. But Republicans thought the government should not have a hand in enforcing something that the free market would take care of.

Your internet provider controls your gate to the internet and also the gate of all the content providers like Google, Netflix and Amazon to you. It can limit your choices and, of course, affect your costs. There is a little issue of freedom of speech involved here, but let's leave the arcane First Amendment debate for another day.

Everyone with a keen interest in the internet disputes everyone else's characterization of Pai's purposes in scrapping the neutrality rule and the effect it will have.

Let's let the financial magazine Fortune describe what happened:

"The nation's largest internet service providers, led by AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, stand to reap the greatest gains. They should easily be able to start favoring online content and services they own over others. In fact, the FCC under Obama-appointed chairman Tom Wheeler had already concluded that Verizon and AT&T were improperly favoring content they owned in likely violation of the 2015 net neutrality rules.

"The prior favoritism took the form of allowing wireless customers to access carrier-owned video services without the usage counting against monthly wireless limits. Accessing all other video services did count against the limits unless the content provider paid extra. Known as zero-rating, the practice was more carrot than stick for wireless customers. But with the rules removed, carriers would be free to adopt more punitive forms of favoritism, like tacking on extra fees for some content or indirectly raising the cost to customers on extra fees for some content or indirectly raising the cost to customers by charging the fees to the content providers. For some internet users, the elimination of the rules gives ISPs a big incentive to continue adding monthly data caps to create a way to favor their own content over wired connections."

Pai's defenders said the government was not needed to guarantee neutrality. They say AT&T, Verizon and Comcast won't shut out content services or discriminate against them because they would lose their customers. That's how the free market always works. This is just a fight between the provider giants and other online behemoths like Amazon and Google, and consumers out there need not worry. Services like Netflix that depend on fast connections oppose Pai's rule because they say consumers will see their costs go up if they want access to streaming videos.

The net-neutrality rule, which declared that internet providers were utilities, came about when providers, starting with a North Carolina telephone company 15 years ago and later Comcast, throttled a service that they thought competed with their own services.

But don't worry. Like financial customers everywhere, you will be enveloped in the tender mercies of the market.

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