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Net neutrality law: Much ado about nothing?

Friday I wrote about Ajit Pai, President Donald Trump’s pick for Federal Communications Commission chairman, who will dismantle some internet regulations put into place in 2015.

This has caused real fear among proponents of net neutrality — the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) such as AT&T and Comcast can’t slow down or speed up internet traffic at their whim.

For example, 86% of 411 IT professionals surveyed on peer network Spiceworks worried that ISPs would reduce internet speed for certain types of content should the rules go away. And 84% were afraid providers might choose to block access to certain sites.

But how crucial is the net neutrality law to a free, open and competitive internet?

It’s not, said Johna Till Johnson, CEO and founder of Nemertes Research. Net neutrality, she said, is based on the faulty assumption that ISPs are “bad guys” who if not forced will stifle small startups.

“The logic behind passing [the 2015 rules] was to prevent carriers from doing something they hadn’t ever done before — only out of fear that because carriers could possibly do it and they’re big, bad entities and they might do it,” Johnson said.

Who’s afraid of ISPs?

Hiawatha Bray, technology writer for The Boston Globe, made a similar point. He spoke to Radio Boston host Meghna Chakrabarti on Boston radio station WBUR on Thursday.

“We’ve had this internet argument going on now for over a decade, and I keep waiting for this nightmare in which giant internet companies are seeking to suppress smaller startups and it just hasn’t been happening.”

That is, until AT&T started letting people who use its mobile service view DirecTV, its subsidiary, for free — a clear case of a provider showing favor to its own content. That’s unfair, Bray said, but “this is about the first time that anything like that has happened.”

What new FCC head Pai has made clear he doesn’t like is the reclassification of internet providers as public telecommunications services under Title II of the Communications Act, the law put in place in the 1930s to watch over telephone companies.

The FCC doesn’t regulate what ISPs can charge consumers; mainly it uses the law to police practices it sees as unfair or harmful to consumers — for example, it can target business alliances in which companies pay providers to prioritize traffic. And it has said what AT&T is doing with DirecTV is in violation of net neutrality laws.

A lighter touch on net neutrality law?

But Bray said Title II gives the FCC more authority than it needs to oversee an industry that “has thrived on a very light regulatory regime” before the 2015 rules.

“I think there should be a much lighter regulatory regime in which you would have Congress pass a law that would forbid certain specific unfair practices.”

And Johnson said net neutrality ignores the influence that companies like Google have on internet business.

“Because, hey, Google Play doesn’t carry your app, you’re toast,” she said. “And by the way nobody’s requiring Google Play to carry your app. They just do or don’t and nobody’s looking into that.”

Future tense

Finally, locking in “old-fashioned regulations” doesn’t take into account emerging technologies, Bray said.

Right now, for example, a company called Starry Inc. is testing a service in Boston that would offer high-speed internet — 200 to 300 megabits a seconds — at around the same price as today’s broadband.

If it works, Bray said, the need for net neutrality law would be moot — because more than just a few companies would control the pipes that pump the internet to users.

“You’d have real competition and the need to regulate the internet as a Title II kind of telephone-type monopoly completely vanishes,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s necessary now, and it’s certainly not going to be necessary when the newer technologies become available.”

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