The phrase was opaque but vaguely appealing. Why would anyone want to repeal something called “net neutrality”? Neutral is inoffensive, right? So when the Federal Communications Commission debated whether to ditch the policy, many Americans joined in the energetic protests.
Recall how the U.S. Senate Democratic caucus warned that “If we don’t save net neutrality, you’ll get the internet one word at a time.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said that “The repeal of these protections has corporate greed and corruption written all over it.” Sen. Chuck Schumer predicted that without net neutrality, watching baseball on a smartphone would mean missing every other pitch.
Hotter heads even used the internet itself to threaten the murder of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s family. One sign memorably warned his children: “They will come to know the truth — Dad murdered democracy in cold blood.”
Net neutrality, a policy imposed by the Obama administration’s FCC in 2015, essentially said internet providers should make all content available at the same speed. Many liberal advocacy groups and Democratic officials warned that if the Trump administration’s FCC repealed net neutrality, cable companies and wireless carriers would speed up and improve the transmission quality of the websites they control, while slowing down rival data streams. What’s more, the providers surely would charge more to guarantee high speeds to affluent users, while slowing down data streams to those who couldn’t afford fast service.
In other words, defenders of net neutrality said repealing the policy would imperil America’s disadvantaged and anti-establishment voices. They argued that the piping of the internet should be viewed as akin to a regulated water or electric utility, and maintained as a neutral carrier.
We wrote in December 2017 that that argument would make sense if technology had reached maximum progress and the main concern, as with an electric company, is keeping the lights on. In truth, though, digital technology is a new, evolving industry, more like robotics or bitcoins than water service. It thrives on market competition, consumer choice and, above all, unfettered innovation.
We argued that the policy emphasis should be on encouraging scientific and commercial discoveries, while incorporating safeguards against exploitation of consumers. Our hunch was that rather than enticing internet providers to extort their customers, this deregulation would give private-sector companies incentives to improve speeds and services: Increased competition would be a greater spur to innovation than government fiat had been.
The FCC did vote to nix net neutrality, effective June 2018. A year-plus later, broadband download and upload speeds have quickened rather than slowed. Internet providers haven’t bifurcated service into different speeds for rich and poor households. Mobile networks, too, move data more swiftly than before. Broadband investment in better technology again has accelerated. And if baseball fan Chuck Schumer has missed a pitch, blame his bat speed, not his data speed.
Who knows, maybe the internet providers are lying in wait to pounce on their customers.
More likely, they’ve learned a lesson from one failure of the post-net-neutrality era. During the California wildfires, Verizon throttled service to the Santa Clara Fire Department, the better to nudge the firefighters into a more expensive data plan. That looked like an outrageous attempt at exploitation.
The rest of the story: Verizon copped to a humiliating customer service failure. The company representative engaging with the Fire Department either didn’t know about, or flouted, Verizon’s standing policy in such situations of suspending any data speed restrictions to emergency responders.
It was a bad mistake, but a mistake. And all the other notorious cases that suggest a need to reinstate net neutrality? That is, where’s the internet Cybergeddon the naysayers predicted, and predicted, and predicted?
That silence you hear in response to those two questions is the sound of free-market incentives improving internet services at a steady pace. Companies are competing to increase rather than decrease data speeds. And, thus far, internet providers haven’t adopted exploitative service and pricing policies that would drive angry customers to rival providers in a heartbeat. And if companies do take unfair advantage of life after net neutrality, the federal deregulation can be modified, or reversed by regulators, or overridden by Congress.
America’s web users, then, are back to where they were before net neutrality, when the internet operated without much government interference — and without adverse effects.
Government regulation does have its place. But on the internet as in so many other realms, consumers’ demands and decisions are the most powerful regulators. Americans are the living, breathing free market forces that drive companies to make their internet services better — and increasingly faster — than … one … word … at … a … time.
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