The headlines regarding the Federal Communications Commission’s upcoming vote on “net neutrality” regulations suggest impending doom. “FCC Is Revving Up to Destroy the Internet as We Know It,” blares a Popular Mechanics headline. “The Free and Open Internet Is About to Become Less Free, Less Open,” declares a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial. Yet, despite the considerable media coverage of net neutrality, the issue remains obscure for many consumers. And unfortunately, much of the coverage has shed more heat than light.
So what does net neutrality actually do? To answer that question, we need to consider how the three principal elements of net neutrality regulations — bans on blocking, throttling and paid prioritization — would be applied to some older “offline” industries.
First, net neutrality would ban Internet providers from blocking any legal content. The reasoning for such a ban is dubious. After all, broadband companies own their private lines and should be able to choose what goes over them. Which raises the question: Do consumers really need the government dictating a no-blocking policy that so tramples on Internet service providers property rights?
Consider one familiar, long-established industry. What if the federal government forced grocery stores to carry every conceivable food item?
Grocery stores have strong incentive to give their shoppers as many choices as possible. If a store chooses not to sell a product, it risks losing customers to competitors that carry that product. Broadband providers operate under the same restraint. They have every incentive to offer their customers maximum access to the Internet’s sites and services.
Some net neutrality proponents oppose allowing broadband companies to develop and then favor their own content, even though this is akin to supermarkets giving their own store-brand products valuable shelf space alongside recognized national brands.
American consumers experience vast and expanding choice at their grocery stores without federal mandates. There’s no reason to believe market forces wouldn’t deliver the same results online.
Second, there’s throttling, the intentional limiting of available bandwidth. It slows Internet connections to help decrease congestion due to high-use times or sites or services that use large amounts of data, such as streaming services. Throttling can happen at various points of connection. Both content providers and broadband providers are capable of throttling, but current net neutrality regulations only outlaw broadband providers from engaging in the practice.
Bandwidth is a finite resource and its owners need ways to control its use and manage congestion. Offering consumers different price points that include some throttling in exchange for lower fees and others that avoid any throttling in exchange for pricier data plans is similar to hotels charging more for rooms during busy travel seasons.
Dynamic pricing offers consumers more choices. The rules of supply and demand still hold in the world of telecommunications.
Yet, it’s the federal government that seems most inclined to block or filter content, through such misguided measures as the Communications Decency Act (and related lawsuits against broadcasters), library filtering, social networking regulation, and privacy regulations. Given that, is there any reason not to expect the FCC to apply its restriction on business practices it doesn’t like to content and apps next?
Finally, net neutrality would prevent broadband companies from accepting payment from content providers in exchange for moving their data across the network more quickly. But shouldn’t paying more get you more?
Think of Netflix content as a passenger on Broadband Airlines. Without the net neutrality ban, Netflix could pay more for a “direct flight,” getting the content passenger to its destination faster. That benefits the loved one waiting in the destination city — or, in our case, a home subscriber binge watching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Federal entities routinely use paid prioritization to better deliver services — including overnight and priority mail, expedited passport renewal, and airline security pre-check.
Consumers benefit from more options at different price points. Broadband service is no exception.
Regulations that are unnecessary, deter investment, and limit innovation are especially harmful in industries as fast-moving as telecommunications. As the above examples show, net neutrality regulations would do little to help broadband consumers.
Originally published by USA Today.