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Net Neutrality or Government Meddling?

Many say the free market can best determine internet speed and access and preserve free speech.


By Daniel James Devine

(WNS)–President Barack Obama issued a strong statement Nov. 10 calling for increased regulation of the internet. The move is ostensibly meant to protect the ability of average Americans to access any website without interference from internet service providers.

This equal-access approach, known as “net neutrality,” would prevent companies like Verizon and AT&T from giving priority bandwidth speeds to favored websites and services (Netflix, for example) and leaving other websites on a slower tier. Supporters of net neutrality say it keeps the internet fair. But opponents—including many conservatives—say the push to enforce net neutrality is another example of overreach by the federal government.

“No service should be stuck in a ‘slow lane’ because it does not pay a fee,” Obama said in a White House statement. “That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the internet’s growth.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tweeted in response: “‘Net Neutrality’ is Obamacare for the internet; the internet should not operate at the speed of government.”

The chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Tom Wheeler, has been trying to craft a legal framework for enforcing net neutrality since a federal appeals court struck down an FCC policy earlier this year. In January, the three-judge panel said the FCC could not legally enforce net neutrality as long as it continued to classify the internet as an information service rather than a public utility. By contrast, the FCC has long enforced principles of neutrality over telephone companies like AT&T by treating them as “telecommunications” utilities, using a legal classification known as “Title II” of the Communications Act of 1934.

To please the courts and strike a balance between the proponents and opponents of net neutrality, Wheeler has been weighing a hybrid approach: The plan would increase the FCC’s oversight of broadband providers while still allowing those providers to strike deals giving some customers and content companies special internet speeds and rates.

But on Monday, Obama said the FCC should reclassify all consumer broadband internet under Title II, giving the FCC broader control of internet service providers. Obama said service providers should not be allowed to block certain websites or “throttle” content, slowing or accelerating broadband speed for certain websites and services, either at the service provider’s preference or through private deals. Such rules are necessary, Obama said, so that service providers do not “exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access in and out of your home or business.”

Verizon and AT&T oppose the president’s proposal and likely would challenge it in court. Since the FCC is independent, it does not have to take the president’s advice. But three out of five of the agency’s commissioners are Democrats, and Wheeler is an Obama appointee.

The issue of net neutrality is complex: Some say it prevents monopolistic practices in situations where consumers have few internet service providers to choose from. Others say it stifles innovation by preventing service providers from experimenting with new ways to deliver high-speed content.

After Obama’s announcement on Monday, several conservative technology experts expressed their disagreement with his proposal.

“Title II reclassification would impose upon a vibrant internet a legal regime designed in the 1930s to control the old AT&T monopoly,” said Daniel Lyons, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a free-market think tank. “The White House’s proposal to homogenize broadband internet access is inconsistent with an increasingly diverse marketplace and would deprive Americans of countless innovative business models currently proliferating worldwide.”

Bret Swanson, another visiting fellow at AEI, said Obama’s proposal would be “a historic economic blunder.”

“The Internet in the U.S. has thrived almost beyond imagination under a multi-decade, bipartisan stance of policy restraint,” he said.

James Gattuso, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, said if Obama’s proposal is implemented, “the networks connecting millions of Americans to the web would be subject to thousands of regulations, requiring them to obtain FCC permission for the most basic of decisions. The nimble internet we know would be slowed to the speed of government and the innovation level of a local water company.

Gattuso criticized the president’s call for a ban on “fast lane” services, or paid prioritization: “Premium pricing is a routine practice in most markets. From airline travel to theater tickets to package delivery, premium service offerings are an established, and essential, part of the business.”

Giving service providers autonomy over how they deliver content to customers is the best way to encourage innovation and competition, net neutrality’s critics say. They argue market forces and existing antitrust laws are sufficient to protect consumers from monopolistic practices.

Craig Aaron strongly disagrees. Aaron is the president of Free Press, an internet freedom organization that supports net neutrality. He wrote Monday that Obama “may have saved the internet at the moment it was in the greatest jeopardy.”

Free Press claims the hybrid proposal the FCC is considering “would allow internet service providers to discriminate online and create pay-to-play fast lanes.” Free Press has helped lead a petition drive asking the FCC to enforce broad net neutrality. The agency has been under pressure to act, receiving nearly 4 million public comments on the issue.