How to Smoke Out Where Broadband Companies Stand on Net Neutrality


When I asked them for comment, representatives for AT&T, Comcast and Verizon pointed to their statements. In those statements, they argue that there is a reasonable middle ground in the neutrality debate — that if given a chance, both sides could arrive at a set of rules that would make the internet better off. And they say the proper venue for that compromise is Congress, not the F.C.C. Legislation rather than regulation, they said, would create a permanent new legal grounding for network neutrality rules, ending the fight once and for all.

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Under Ajit Pai, President Trump’s pick for F.C.C. chairman, the pro-neutrality side is unlikely to get much of what it wants from the commission.

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Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

So which is it, cynicism or an earnest attempt to move the debate forward? Well, maybe their motivation doesn’t matter. Here’s one idea for longtime proponents of network neutrality: Call the broadband companies’ bluff, if that’s what it is. Maybe it is time to push Congress, rather than the F.C.C., to take up the neutrality fight — and maybe, finally, end the debate for good.

The reasoning here is pretty straightforward. Under Ajit Pai, President Trump’s pick for F.C.C. chairman, the pro-neutrality side is unlikely to get much of what it wants from the commission anyway. In Congress, some key Republicans have signaled a willingness to draft neutrality rules. The new rules from Congress are almost certain to fall short of the ideal outcome from neutrality advocates; they will also probably be weaker than the sweeping regulatory system drafted by Tom Wheeler, the F.C.C. chairman under President Obama. But that is to be expected; there is a Republican Congress, a Republican president and a deregulatory mood ascendant in Washington.

But broadband companies also face enormous consumer pressure to keep their networks functioning well. On the Day of Action, many internet companies showed worst-case scenarios that could come out of the death of net neutrality rules — trickle-slow load times and an internet marked by paid bundles, like the return of cable TV on your computer. Broadband companies, which are already quite hated by their customers, aren’t likely to be keen on seeing those scenarios come to pass — and would therefore willingly support legislation that prevents such horrors, said Michael Powell, a former F.C.C. chairman who is now the president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, a broadband trade association.

“There’s a premise out there that we are itching to block, itching to create slow lanes, but we’re not,” Mr. Powell said. “I’ve had this conversation with every C.E.O., and it’s not because they’re good people or are philanthropists. They’re as self-interested as Google or anybody else, but they believe they’ve found a good business selling internet access on open, unobstructed pipes. They don’t see how one could create a profitable business model by degrading the experience of their consumers.”

He added: “I guess you could think we just constantly lie, but I’m trying to convince you it’s as sincere as it comes. It’s in their greedy monetary self-interest not to block anyone.”

So if broadband companies are itching for a law, why not get on that bandwagon? Yes, a law would be hard to get; legislation under this Congress has a habit of dying on the launchpad. But it’s not implausible: Internet giants control the world’s most important channels for information, from your Facebook feed to Google results to your phone’s home screen. They are more than capable of applying enormous pressure to members of Congress to push for what they want.

And then, if nothing else, we’ll be able to see where the broadband companies really stand.

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