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US groups limber up to defend net neutrality: but first a polite letter

net vigil

via Flickr © Tim Pierce (CC BY 2.0)

  • 170 groups author letter to plead for network neutrality
  • New FCC chairman set to roll back Wheeler's pro-consumer regulation
  • Pai faces a protest storm if he makes any sudden moves

More than 170 groups and organisations this week sent a letter to US FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, telling him to keep his tiny, Trump-like hands off network neutrality. Except they didn’t use any hot-blooded words such as those. They used restrained, fact-backed arguments and reworked the watertight case that’s been made for network neutrality for the last 10 years and longer.

But I fear the entreaty will fall on deaf ears. Pai has made clear his intention to neutralise net neutrality, mostly by simply having the commission not enforce the rules until congress can put some new ones in place.

Pai is no doubt aware that he faces major public opposition were he to create any sort of net neutrality ‘moment’ around which the pro-neutrality masses (mostly liberal, of course) could rally to demonstrate and oppose him - especially in the still-febrile, post election atmosphere with a ‘Resist Trump’ movement hungry for another cause.  

In the meantime Pai’s narrative around network neutrality, which he calls a mistake, was laid out at last week’s at Mobile World Congress, where, amongst other things, he raised the spectre of “1930s-style regulation” referring to the rather sound ‘common carrier’ principles that Title II invokes, ignoring the fact that FCC chairman Wheeler was only pushed to reclassify Internet Access as Title II because the courts said he must to have the authority to regulate.  

The fact is that, far from being some weird diversion on the road to technological bliss, de facto network neutrality was the basis on which the World Wide Web grew and prospered. Further, that invoking rules to keep the Internet neutral was not part of some US government conspiracy, or even misplaced ‘overreach’, but a rational response to oft-repeated assertions by US telecoms leaders that, somehow, illegitimate use was being made of their ‘pipes’ and that they were going to impose upstream tolls on the companies who sent all the ‘traffic’.

They, the Internet Access providers, were aiming to be the Internet’s gatekeepers, so network neutrality rules were required to keep them in check.

“In 2015, millions of people made their support for net neutrality clear in comments to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) supporting the Open Internet Order,” says the letter to Pai. “The order, which reclassified broadband internet under Title II, enshrined the principles of net neutrality in law, and gave the FCC the authority to enforce it. As a result, broadband providers cannot block users’ access to content, slow down connections to services, or charge for speedier delivery of preferred content. Since the order went into effect, broadband infrastructure investment is up, ISP revenues are at record highs, and businesses continue developing innovative ideas and offerings.”

Pai is unlikely to be swayed by this sort of rational, fact-based argument. Like his boss, Donald J Trump, who has just nominated Pai for another five-year term on the commission, he prefers alternative facts, such as his assertion that US infrastructure investment has  “experienced the first decline in broadband investment outside of a recession.”

It hasn’t.

In fact ISP revenues are at record highs with ISP capital expenditure increasing by 4 per cent  and total revenues 5 per cent from 2014 to 2015.

According to ex FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, the ‘it’s going to hurt my willingness to invest’ trick is so old it has whiskers. And Wheeler should know. In a recent interview with Harvard Law School professor, Susan Crawford, he admitted to using it himself in his former life as a lobbyist for the  wireless industry.

“It’s balderdash,” he says. “The reason you invest is to get a return. Companies don’t say, “Well, I’m not going to invest because I might trigger some regulations.” Their question is: “Am I going to make a return off of this?” Broadband is a high-margin operation. You can make a return off of it.

“The facts speak for themselves. Since the Open Internet rule was put in place, broadband investment is up, fiber connections are up, usage of broadband is up, investment in companies that use broadband is up, and revenues in the broadband providers are up, because people are using it more.”

For more fact based argument see the whole ‘Backchannel’ interview. It’s really worth a good read.

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