Editorial: Preserve Net Neutrality

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Ideology will trump real-world experience if the Federal Communications Commission as expected repeals “net neutrality” rules in mid-December. As is often the case, the best way to unravel an issue like this one is to follow the money: Telecom giants will gain power and profits from a repeal, while consumers gain little or nothing.

During the Obama administration, the FCC increased regulation of the internet, under the theory that is has become a public utility, essential as phones or electricity. Given the internet’s growing role in business, communication and other sectors, that seems an obvious truth. The internet is the interstate highway of the digital economy.

Net neutrality requires telecoms to treat traffic to all websites equally, rather than favoring some over others. Trump-appointed Chairman Ajit Pai wants to turn that on its head, arguing that loosening regulations would allow companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast to innovate and offer consumers more choices. But in doing so, the FCC would also allow those companies to stop or slow down the delivery of certain websites, perhaps ones that compete with their own services, and charge customers higher internet fees for content that calls for high-quality streaming — think Netflix, for one example. Pai said the telecoms would be required to be transparent about their practices, thereby protecting consumers. But we’ve seen how such things work in the real world: Cable companies, for one example, have mostly operated as near-monopolies, offering complicated packages that drive up prices and make consumers pay for things they don’t want.

The FCC is supposed to be influenced by public comment, but the process in this case has been muddied by the possibility that massive amounts of the comments received were fake — on both sides. The New York Attorney General’s office found that “hundreds of thousands’’ of submissions impersonated New York residents. Some suspiciously relied heavily on telecom industry talking points, The New York Times reported. There are also reports of comments from deceased persons, and others of Russian origin. Here’s more evidence that an unregulated internet is a Wild West, this one with high stakes for the nation.

Content providers such as Google, Netflix and Facebook are lobbying against repeal. More threatened are small businesses — many giants started as gnats in this tech age and were greatly aided by fair access to the internet. For many small businesses in the Upper Valley, the internet offers the hope that they can gain access to larger markets despite their remote locations. But if telecoms could favor bigger companies that can pay them to operate in the fast lane, that hope could die.

This is your FCC under President Donald Trump, who appointed regulation-averse Pai to head an agency that has plenty to regulate. In a short time, he has moved to allow significantly more concentration of ownership of broadcast media, which conservative Sinclair Broadcasting is poised to take advantage of, and has lifted rules that require broadcasters to retain local studios.

It appears the die may be cast at the FCC, but there is still time to raise an alarm and influence political calculations. The board of trustees of the Lebanon Public Library this week voted to join the president of the American Library Association in opposing Pai’s proposal. Small- and medium-sized businesses should join the chorus. There is hope that litigation would delay any change, giving Congress time to step in on the issue. In the meantime, members of Congress should hear why net neutrality benefits the vast majority of Americans. Indeed, they should get an earful.