Love Streaming? Then Don’t Let Distraction Doom Net Neutrality Legislation

By Chip Pickering

We may finally be getting somewhere in the fight to save net neutrality. Last year we saw the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate pass the Congressional Review Act — calling for the reinstatement of strong net neutrality protections — with key bipartisan support. Now, the Democrats in control of the House have introduced the Save the Internet Act, which will put open internet protections back on the books.

In part, the Congressional urgency to act is being driven by INCOMPAS’s strong day in court earlier this year. We are petitioners, along with leading consumer groups and states, in the legal fight to overturn the FCC’s controversial decision to end decades of bipartisan net neutrality policy.

Our all-star legal team laid out an excellent argument, and the justices asked important questions about consumer expectations to access information of their choice, including obtaining public safety information in times of crises. While we don’t presume to know where the three judge panel will rule, it was clear from the five hours in court that they understand the gravity of this landmark case. The future of the internet — the engine of our economy — hangs in the balance.

But as we near some critical votes in Congress, it’s crucial not to be distracted or confused by the big ISP’s attempts to muddy the waters on net neutrality. Here’s what to look out for:

Net neutrality light? That isn’t Right

We’ve seen a number of net neutrality bills that don’t include all the net neutrality protections. Make no mistake, pushing net neutrality light is just enabling more cable wrong. Keep a watchful eye out for efforts to allow third-party paid prioritization or exclude interconnection protection.

Remember when Comcast slowed down Netflix? That was the cable giant extorting higher fees at the point of interconnection. After strong net neutrality was enacted in 2015, covering interconnection, we immediately saw the streaming revolution take off like a rocket — giving consumers more choice at lower prices. Not only did Netflix grow, streaming competition blossomed from Amazon, Hulu, HBO, YouTube, and DC Comics. Disney and Apple will make a big streaming splash this year as well.

Video, music and gaming are all streaming into the future. And so is small business. Interconnection also means cloud solutions have flourished — helping main street shops save money and grow their customer base.

Last year we supported a Republican bill that covered all four corners of internet protections. The Save the Internet Act moving through Congress now also meets our criteria, and we hope it will draw bipartisan support.

Broken Promises

Poll after poll shows that net neutrality is extremely popular. Over 80 percent of Americans want a free and open internet, including conservatives and millenials who want to start businesses.

That is why those who stand with the cable companies have received such backlash from the American people. Consumers have suffered from terrible customer service, rising fees and broken promises from cable for far too long.

The FCC’s decision to repeal net neutrality relied heavily on the belief that we should just trust ISPs to do the right thing. Well, AT&T promised they wouldn’t raise prices or discriminate against content competition if they bought Time Warner.

It didn’t take long for them to do both.

Beware the Dangerous Distraction

Stuck with a losing hand, ISP supporters have turned to a classic Washington tactic: distraction.

Like a boxer losing a fight, the ISPs have started to take some wild and erratic swings. The most ridiculous argument? Lamenting that there are “different rules” for ISPs and edge providers.

They argue that because internet and social media platforms manage their networks to target audiences and are improving efforts to monitor content — everything from making their platforms more family friendly to stopping terrorist propaganda and violence-inducing speech — that somehow they are the ones violating net neutrality principles.

They’re not. So let’s clear this up once and for all.

How you access the internet and how you customize what you do once you get there are two very, very different things.

Getting to the internet is limited to a few points of entry. Historically, telecom monopolists divided up the nation like cartels, never stepping on each other’s turf and charging monopoly rents.

Meanwhile, the internet space for websites, blogs, social media platforms, and streaming services continues growing its universe of unlimited choices.

Give the big ISPs points for injecting their confusing, blame shifting talking point into the debate. But the notion that net neutrality applies across both ecosystems is like saying football and basketball both involve balls, so the rules should be the same for both sports.

Here’s why.

First:

ISP = Access

Consumers who want internet access purchase it through an ISP. That purchase, which can be pretty pricey, guarantees the customer access to the entire internet. By definition, the ISPs hold themselves out as the transmission to and from the entire internet.

That definition of service is at the core of net neutrality.

Going back to the time of Republican FCC Chairmen Michael Powell and Kevin Martin, we have always upheld the principles that ISPs cannot block, throttle, or prioritize this bridge between the consumer and the entire internet. The 2017 FCC Order, for the first time, ended this compact.

Internet Companies = Customization

Once a consumer gets to the internet, they can customize their experience by choosing from millions of websites, apps, social media platforms or streaming services to curate their information.

Edge providers design and deliver an experience to navigate this universe and connect people with people or people with content. Different tools and different communities help enable customization. This creates opportunities for innovation from new companies.

Competition

At its core, net neutrality is a competition issue. The open internet may be the greatest example of the free market in action. We have a universe of websites and apps but only a handful of ISPs.

A recent GAO study found over half of Americans only have ONE choice for broadband service provider. And over two-thirds have no more than two choices. That’s an insane 89 percent of Americans trapped by a monopoly or duopoly.

Yes, there are different rules and laws for ISPs and internet edge providers. The same way that laws of nature have a different set of rules for your lungs above water and below.

If you play out this distraction technique, and truly try to conflate customization with prioritization, we move into a very dangerous place. Not just for internet platforms, but for anyone with a website — including news organizations and small businesses. A “fairness doctrine” for the internet would not only mean dictating what stories MSNBC and FOX list on their websites, but it could also prevent a local hardware store website from advertising a sale on hammers because it discriminates against the Home Depot’s sale on screw drivers.

If we want more competition for websites, news outlets, social media, and business software, then defending net neutrality in the strongest manner possible should be a top priority.