According to recent reports, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai is preparing to roll back the net neutrality rules put in place by former Chairman Tom Wheeler. While we don’t know the exact details yet, Chairman Pai is aiming to restore the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over ISPs in exchange for promises from the ISPs to not block or throttle content and to not engage in paid prioritization deals.
Let’s put aside the debate over whether the FCC or FTC is best positioned to police broadband providers and whether mere promises from cable companies will be enough to protect consumers. Make no mistake – there is a lot to consider there.
For now, let’s dig into what provisions of net neutrality are important for a free and open society. As we noted in our 2015 comments to the FCC, consumers should be able to access content they choose. Therefore, it makes sense to prohibit blocking and throttling by ISPs. Also, “paid prioritization” deals could potentially favor content creators with more resources and market power over non-profit or startup companies. “Paid prioritization” would also likely favor content companies that are owned by the ISPs. Certainly, without transparency and safeguards, “paid prioritization” quickly starts to feel like paying a ransom.
Missing the Plot
What’s more concerning about Chairman Pai’s proposal is what is missing. Namely, the silence on “zero rating” plans and the lack of basic privacy protections for consumers.
During the debate over the FCC privacy rules for broadband providers, many cable lobbyists complained that these rules would create an un-level playing field. There was concern that ISPs would have more restrictions on their ability to surreptitiously collect and sell consumer data than companies like Google. To be clear, if you’ve watched the continued rise in the use of ad blocking software by consumers, then you know consumers aren’t happy with the rise in “big brother” data collection methods by corporate giants.
However, in restoring FTC jurisdiction, there is an opportunity to create a level playing field while at the same time providing some basic privacy protections for consumers. As I noted a couple of weeks ago, the industry’s self-regulatory code requires any company that tracks “all or substantially all” of a consumer’s activity on the web to obtain that consumer’s consent. Companies like Google and Verizon have already publicly promised to abide by these rules. If the FTC holds the industry to the promises made in their self-regulatory code, we would have a level playing field that begins to match with most consumers’ expectations under a flexible FTC enforcement regime.
Zero Rating Issues
“Zero rating” plans also need to be addressed. This is the practice whereby a broadband provider allows consumers to access content without counting that access against a data cap. ISPs tend to “zero rate” content that they own (see Verizon’s AOL and Yahoo content). As more and more content consumption moves to mobile devices (with data plans), “zero rating” will become a huge issue. Most consumers don’t have unlimited data plans and many broadband providers have stopped offering them altogether.
The concern with “zero rating” is that there are only so many content creators that can benefit. This is partly true because a broadband provider only wants one content creator per vertical. For example, AT&T might accept payment from sportingnews.com to “zero rate” their content. Verizon owns Yahoo Sports. But where does that leave every other content creator in the sports world? Doesn’t this create a barrier to entry for any startup? This quickly becomes a game of a musical chairs that doesn’t end well for consumers, innovation or minority voices.
Open or Closed
Content creators thrive in a competitive and open marketplace in which they compete on the value of their news and entertainment. Unchecked “zero rating” plans could have the same effect as ISPs engaging in blocking, throttling and paid prioritization.
We can and should have a robust debate about whether the FTC or FCC is best positioned to promote net neutrality. But let’s not lose sight of the opportunity to protect the internet’s promise of wide, open access and the societal good that promise has delivered since its inception. Any net neutrality plan must also address “zero rating” and set a level playing field for consumer privacy protections. Without these safeguards, the hallmark characteristics of the open web — diversity of voices, opportunity for discovery and freedom to innovate — are imperiled.