Heller wins one
Net neutrality repealed
Net neutrality, a federal policy requiring that all internet users be treated the same, has been revoked by the Federal Trade Commission in a 3-to-2 vote, an action long urged by U.S. Sen. Dean Heller. Internet service providers (ISPs) are now free to slow or speed traffic on the internet to assist or hamper operations in which they have an interest, raising consumer costs in the process.
Net neutrality was adopted by the FCC during the Obama administration to require ISPs to treat all web traffic the same. Supporters say it keeps the internet open and information travels freely without interference by broadband providers. Under neutrality, ISPs thus function like inert transmission lines, unable to alter the speed or block access to particular websites and thus unable to fiddle with content or charge more for higher speeds.
Heller has pushed aggressively for a corporate-friendly internet. In a Nov. 9, 2011 statement, he said, “Net neutrality goes against years of sound internet policy, led by both Democrats and Republicans, to leave the internet virtually unregulated that has ushered in an era of wonderful innovation and billions in private investment in infrastructure.”
Heller, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, accepted $372,250 from telecommunications contributors over the course of his congressional career, and $93,500 in 2016 alone.
At the Register website, Kieren McCarthy wrote the country is entering “a world where the real heroes—corporations—can finally act unimpeded. Remember those beautiful early days when the internet was the ’Wild West’? We’re going back there. Right now. So buy yourself a gun, get yourself de-wormed, and keep a bottle of bourbon close by in case you need surgery or get a nasty dose of the clap. America is back, baby! Yeehaw!”
In 2014, after Barack Obama championed net neutrality, Heller said, “The President’s approach takes dynamic technology and turns it into another utility like electricity and water. And just like power and water, today’s internet would become stagnant instead of remaining vibrant.”
He did not explain what is stagnant about water and power markets.
By contrast, net neutrality supporters say the internet should be regulated like a utility.
“We should treat the Internet as the public utility that it is—like water, telephones and electricity,” said a statement signed by the long distance service Credo.
Obama argued that regulation kept corporate control away from the internet: “There are no gatekeepers deciding which sites you get to access. There are no toll roads on the information superhighway. This set of principles, the idea of net neutrality, has unleashed the power of the Internet and given innovators the chance to thrive. Abandoning these principles would threaten to end the Internet as we know it.”
In an appearance on Yahoo Finance, media executive Barry Diller said, “This internet thing is a total accident of history—never happened before. You push a button, you publish to everyone. OK. In the past, at the beginning of communications, there’s always been someone between you creating something and the person receiving it—a distributor, some sort of organizer. … If you change that and put a distributor’s discrimination in the middle of it, we’ll do what every distributor since the beginning of time has done, has said, ’My wires are valuable. If you want to get across them you’re going to pay me a toll,’ and that toll will be either dollars or, more likely, it’ll be, ’Give me most of your profit.’”
Opponents say no one can point to problems before net neutrality was adopted. “[W]hy is it that the internet was able to grow and operate so successfully from its creation all the way until 2015 without any of these dire problems?” wrote Jesse Hathaway on the Fox News site.
In this newspaper, columnist Brendan Trainor wrote last week, “Private market monopolies are extremely hard to sustain against new competition. Net neutralists cannot point to real world examples.”
Those kind of commentaries have enraged supporters of consumer protections because they have sent such examples to D.C. and don’t understand why their comments have not stopped such claims. In her dissent at the vote, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn argued the reason is that the FCC record has, in effect, been tampered with by the GOP majority, which kept those bad examples out of it.
“It is abundantly clear why we see so much bad process with this item—because the fix was already in. There is no real mention of the thousands of net neutrality complaints filed by consumers. Why? The majority has refused to put them in the record while maintaining the rhetoric that there have been no real violations. Record evidence of the massive incentives and abilities of broadband providers to act in anti-competitive ways are missing from the docket? Why? Because they have refused to use the data and knowledge the agency does have, and has relied upon in the past to inform our merger reviews. As the majority has shown again and again, the views of individuals do not matter, including the views of those who care deeply about the substance, but are not Washington insiders.”
T-Mobile, for instance, was criticized by net neutrality supporters for playing games with bandwidth for some video streaming services to put them at a competitive disadvantage against Netflix, Hulu and HBO, which were part of the T-Mobile Binge On service. T-Mobile admitted the behavior in January 2016.
Hathaway also argued, “No internet service provider wants to be known for having ’slow service’ or being ’anti-free-speech,’ so there’s nothing for consumers to worry about.”
In Fortune magazine, Michael Wade and Heidi Gautschi similarly wrote, “Occasionally, an ISP was caught slowing down (throttling) certain sites, but public pressure or legal action tended to keep the ISP honest. There is little reason to believe that a future with no net neutrality regulation will be very different from the past.”
Supporters of neutrality respond that, in the intervening years, corporations have gained conflicts of interest. AT&T for instance, has a motive for slowing access to Netflix, which does nothing for AT&T, in order to aid and speed DirecTV, in which AT&T has a financial stake, and that the financial incentive would be stronger than the less likely risk of customers going to the trouble of switching service.
It is the second such action Heller has supported. In April, Republican U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona sponsored S.J. Res. 34, which allowed corporations to sell information about their customers. A Federal Communications Commission rule would have required the corporations to get customers’ permission before using or sharing sensitive data—including browsing histories, and medical and financial information—with other businesses. The resolution, approved by the Senate in March in a 50-to-48 vote, blocked the FCC rule. Heller and Northern Nevada U.S. House member Mark Amodei both voted to block.
A wide swath of supporters of net neutrality, including dozens of mayors, state attorneys general, and corporations like Amazon are now at work trying reverse the FCC’s net neutrality repeal.