Washington — Since FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to repeal net neutrality rules was released, there has been widespread concern expressed from the public, startups, and Internet companies, launching a heated debate. Last week, a speech by Pai muddied the waters surrounding the plan to dismantle net neutrality.
The speech tried to deflect attention from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to edge providers, claiming that web-based services are the real worry when it comes to limiting consumer choice of content. Pai stated: “[D]espite all the talk about the fear that broadband providers could decide what Internet content consumers can see, recent experience shows that so-called edge providers are in fact deciding what content they see. These providers routinely block or discriminate against content they don’t like.”
It’s easy to confuse the terms block and throttle, but in the context of the net neutrality debate, they refer to an ISP’s ability to block or throttle any and all traffic requested by the user while it’s going through their part of the network. Chairman Pai’s use of these terms in a separate context is an attempt to confuse and distract. It also fails to offer a compelling justification for repealing the 2015 Open Internet rules that were approved by a Federal Appeals Court just last year.
At its core, the principle of net neutrality is that all data and all legal Internet traffic should be treated in a non-discriminatory manner. The 2015 rules upheld this principle by banning anti-competitive practices such as blocking, throttling, and discrimination. The FCC applied these rules to the only actors who have the incentive and ability to undermine net neutrality by engaging in these practices — the biggest ISPs. As CCIA argued in an amicus brief at the D.C. Circuit, ISPs have enormous control over the delivery of the Internet to consumers. ISPs have a unique power over web traffic including the exclusive ability to control traffic at interconnection points, which are necessary for edge providers even to reach their customers. Absent clear net neutrality rules, ISPs are free to extract tolls at these points or degrade delivery of web traffic to their subscribers.
Pai’s ‘whataboutism’ thus fails on two counts. First, it in no way addresses broadband providers’ incentive and ability to engage in discriminatory practices — AT&T and Comcast have done so in the past, and without these rules, they’ll be unleashed to do so in the future. Second, it ignores that edge providers are subject to significant competitive pressures that ISPs are not. Lost in the Chairman’s speech was the fact that edge providers just don’t have the same massive control over internet users as broadband internet access providers — and the law reflects that.
This false equivalence does not inform the debate. The debate should return to the heart of net neutrality – ensuring an open Internet free of ISP interference by blocking, throttling, or discrimination schemes.