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San Diego Union-Tribune: Why repealing ‘net neutrality’ for internet is a gamble

November 30, 2017 GMT

It wasn’t broke, so why “fix” it? That’s how Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, the University of Chicago-trained lawyer who is a passionate apostle of free-market capitalism, frames his push to repeal “net neutrality” rules for internet service providers adopted by the FCC in 2015. The rules ensure that ISPs can’t arbitrarily decide which websites load faster or slower, nor can they impose a surcharge allowing websites to load faster.

“President Clinton got it right in 1996 when he established a free market-based approach to this new thing called the internet,” Pai told NPR this week. “We saw companies like Facebook and Amazon and Google become global powerhouses precisely because we had light-touch rules.”

Pai was appointed chair of the FCC by President Donald Trump in January after serving as an FCC commissioner since 2012. He appears to have the votes to repeal net neutrality and replace it with his Restoring Internet Freedom Order plan, under which ISPs could charge websites and applications extra for faster loading, so long as they disclosed what they were doing.

But there is a fundamental problem with Pai’s argument. Yes, it’s true that the free market and a lack of regulation did allow the internet to flourish. But 2017 isn’t like 1997 or even 2007. Instead of being an anything-goes Wild West, internet service is increasingly monopolistic.

Americans are more reliant than ever on high-speed streaming — and ISPs are not just getting more involved in creating content, they are beginning to become dominant sources. Comcast — the nation’s largest provider of broadband service — owns NBCUniversal, which churns out TV series and movies and also owns MSNBC, CNBC, the Golf Channel, E! and USA Network.

Comcast rival AT&T is seeking to buy Time Warner and get hold of its vast TV and film production assets as well as its CNN, TNT, TBS and Cartoon Network cable channels. While the Trump administration opposes and may be able to block the AT&T purchase, the trend of broadband providers seeking to own the content they stream is sure to continue.

That this creates immense, inherent conflicts of interest doesn’t bother Pai. But it should bother anyone who values Americans’ reliable, guaranteed, consistent access to the internet.

With society’s reliance on digital data (telemedicine, anyone?), the internet has become a core utility akin to water or electricity. Americans wouldn’t tolerate a water grid or power grid that played favorites. It would be a dangerous gamble for the FCC to do so with internet service.

— The San Diego Union-Tribune