Column: Internet providers put hypocrisy on full display in challenging net neutrality
California got the go-ahead from a federal judge this week to enact a net neutrality law passed in 2018. I’m guessing you don’t much care.
Not that you’re ambivalent about the internet. There probably isn’t a single more important technology in your life right now, which is why I’ve called for authorities to regulate the internet like the utility it’s become.
Rather, net neutrality is pretty wonky and applies more to network providers than to consumers, making most of us bystanders in a fairly technical, industry-focused debate.
But what you should care about is the fact that the huge companies we all rely on for internet service responded to the court ruling with what one prominent expert described to me as, well, cattle-related fecal output.
“They’ve been making these same arguments for years,” said Christopher Jon Sprigman, a law professor at New York University who has been at the forefront of net neutrality discussions for years.
He wrote an amicus brief on behalf of members of Congress after the Trump administration in 2017 repealed federal net neutrality rules put in place by President Obama. The brief was backed by more than 100 lawmakers.
Sprigman said industry claims of regulatory overreach when it comes to the internet “are as old as dirt.”
“The reality,” he told me, “is that service providers have been feasting for years, raising prices faster than the rate of inflation. They just don’t want anyone telling them how to run their networks.”
Net neutrality is the idea that all internet content should be treated the same by internet service providers.
It’s a simple proposition that service providers — think Spectrum or Comcast — shouldn’t be allowed to favor some content over others, typically for extra cash, nor should they be permitted to discriminate against content that competes with their own offerings.
In other words, net neutrality means a telecom behemoth like Comcast couldn’t favor its own streaming channels over rival channels in terms of speed and reliability. Nor could it charge higher rates to Amazon, say, for more reliable access than might be afforded to Etsy.
Put simply, net neutrality is about maintaining a fair and competitive online marketplace.
So the big news this week is that California’s efforts to achieve that are back on track. That’s a good thing. It also appears likely the Biden administration will seek to restore federal safeguards abandoned by President Trump.
But for me, the more interesting aspect to all this is the completely bogus defense of current broadband practices being ladled up by internet service providers.
They’re represented in this case by the biggest lobbying groups for wired and mobile broadband providers — the American Cable Assn., CTIA-The Wireless Assn., the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn. and USTelecom.
The groups said in a joint statement that “a state-by-state approach to internet regulation will confuse consumers and deter innovation, just as the importance of broadband for all has never been more apparent.”
They said “a piecemeal approach is untenable” and “Congress should codify rules for an open Internet.”
Sprigman found this argument “factually incoherent.”
“It will confuse consumers?” he responded. “It won’t confuse anyone. There’s no interstate market for internet. California consumers don’t shop for internet access in Iowa.”
Sprigman said the industry’s claims that net neutrality will deter innovation are no less ridiculous.
“There’s no proof of that,” he said. “They’re not going to stop investing in their networks just because of this.”
I was told the same by other experts.
“Consumers are predominantly unaware of any government regulations as applied to internet service,” said Leonard Kleinrock, a UCLA computer science professor who is credited by the Internet Hall of Fame with being one of the founding fathers of the modern net.
“They are deeply aware of, and subject to, opaque, confusing and unsettling variations to their internet speeds,” he said. “In addition, the consumer typically has extremely limited choice of a service provider, thus leading to what is basically a monopoly.”
If anything, Kleinrock told me, net neutrality will promote innovation by service providers.
“They will be far more motivated to innovate in ways that advance technology to provide better service at lower prices,” he said. “Furthermore, it will encourage competition in that marketplace, which encourages further innovation.”
Barbara van Schewick, director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, said that “net neutrality ensures that cool, innovative startups don’t have to worry about being blocked, slowed down or having to pay internet service providers, and that people can use their services without interference.”
“The more states adopt net neutrality, the larger the market for innovation,” she said.
We’ve heard the same tired arguments over and over from the business world. State-by-state rules are too darn hard to comply with. National rules are better.
But as soon as the focus shifts to federal regulations, businesses proceed to water down proposed rules, making them as industry-friendly as possible. We’ve seen that repeatedly with privacy and financial protections.
Moreover, the lobbying groups wringing their hands over California’s net neutrality law are the same ones that fought against enactment of federal regulations. They’re now calling for what they already tried to get rid of.
Sprigman at New York University said internet service providers simply want to maintain a status quo that’s allowed them to wildly overcharge customers for years.
“They want to be able to extract as much money as possible from their networks,” he said.
UCLA’s Kleinrock told me he resents the double dipping inherent in current industry practices.
“I’m happy to provide the content providers a fee for content, but abhor the fact that the carriers also want to charge for that content,” he said.
California enacted its own net neutrality law because broadband businesses succeeded in scuttling federal rules. For all its fretting about confused consumers, this is an industry that’s looking out only for itself.
If I’m wrong, these companies will now embrace any move by the Biden administration to restore the Obama-era federal regulations.
But I’m not wrong.