Debate over net neutrality focuses on government regulation vs. free market
EAGLE COUNTY — In an era when half of the country’s body politic saying “up” seems to automatically trigger cries of “down” from the other half, it’s no surprise that internet regulation has been drawn into that fight.
There’s been a lot of passionate debate over the future of net neutrality rules created in 2015 by the Federal Communications Commission. Commission members are set to vote Thursday, Dec. 14, on a proposal to eliminate those regulations.
Supporters of the 2015 regulations — created by President Barack Obama’s administration — said the rules are essential to providing unfiltered access to the internet.
Those who favor repealing the regulations say the free market is a better way into the future.
On the side of the regulations is Rep. Jared Polis, whose district includes roughly the eastern third of Eagle County.
Polis, who was a successful internet entrepreneur before entering politics, said the idea of net neutrality is a benefit for both big companies and startups.
But what is “net neutrality”?
The idea, Polis said, is that internet service providers shouldn’t be able to create tiers of services or charge entrepreneurs or corporations for access to customers. The concern is that service providers could create levels of service. That could be more costly for both customers and businesses.
Polis said that creates an internet environment in which customers only have access to content providers choose to provide at a certain price. Net neutrality supporters claim that if tiered pricing is allowed, both businesses and customers will be harmed by limiting the unhindered flow of information currently available.
Caroline Fry, the advocacy and media manager of Colorado Common Cause, said service providers are the gatekeepers to the internet. That could affect the flow of information between users and content providers.
Fry said the impact on small business could be significant if the regulations are lifted.
“Smaller online shops are completely reliant on net neutrality,” Fry said. “If I have a small shop selling custom sweaters, I rely on purchasers being able to find me without paying extra to (a service provider). I can’t compete with a site like Amazon that can pay.”
While the current rules are only a couple of years old, Polis said the Obama administration first proposed a version of the neutrality rules in 2011. Regulation opponents went to court, where the FCC lost. The rules were reintroduced in 2015, using Title 2 of the 1934 Telecommunications Act.
Using that act, which was intended for telephones, is one of the problems Barry Fagin sees with the current regulations. The FCC, he said, really has no regulatory power over the internet.
Fagin is senior fellow in technology policy at the Independence Institute, a Denver-based free-market think tank that holds generally conservative or libertarian views. He was a successful plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged parts of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 as unconstitutional.
Fagin said he doesn’t care for the term “net neutrality” since, in his view, the term doesn’t describe what the regulations do. In Fagin’s opinion, the net neutrality regulations stifle competition and innovation.
“What we need is to allow prices to reflect economic realities,” Fagin said. While data is data, Fagin said how that data is used can vary significantly, from simple emails to streaming videos.
The current regulations, he said, deal with what internet service providers might do, rather than what any of those firms had been doing.
Those who worry about service providers abusing monopoly power have some valid concerns. But, he added, the reason service providers are monopolies is more due to local government regulation than competitive forces.
Varied pricing for different services may result in some business closures, Fagin said, adding that what he called “creative destruction” is preferable to stasis in the technology available.
‘Should be cut off’
Fagin also said Congress has the authority to sanction service providers engaged in abusive business practices. The abuses net neutrality supporters fear can be addressed through a political process, he said.
Polis said equal treatment of content — and the unhindered flow of information — requires government regulation. Polis said the tech industry seems to agree.
“Every internet company I know of … agrees that bandwidth-intensive products could be cut off unless Google pays Time Warner for it,” Polis said.
“This is about the (internet) pipe that comes into your home,” Polis added. “It should be the internet, not part of the internet that’s tiered because of back-room deals.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.
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