US net neutrality debate set to explode

The political battle lines are being drawn as the FCC deadline for consultation on repeal of regulations that restrict ISP’s ability to favour certain traffic looms.

The legislation in question is called Title II and concerns what is commonly known as net neutrality – i.e. compelling CSPs to treat all internet traffic equally. Ajit Pai, the current head of US telecoms regulator the FCC, announced plans to reverse the regulations implemented by his predecessor earlier this year and commenced a consultation process that is set to end at the start of next week.

As with so much on the other side of the pond this issue is highly polarised, partisan and political. Pai is a Trump appointee while his predecessor Wheeler was appointed by Obama. The issue of regulation lends itself naturally to political posturing, with left-leaning Democrats tending to favour state intervention and right-leaning republicans leaning in a more laissez fair, light-touch direction.

Pai reckons this Title II set of regulations places excessive restrictions on how internet service providers run their business, while Wheeler seemed to be of the opinion that US telecoms giants such as AT&T and Verizon would hold everyone’s internet connection to ransom, given half a chance.

And the political character of this debate doesn’t end there. A bunch of opposing organisations somewhat presumptuously referring to itself as ‘the internet’ has organised a day of action on 12 July designed to demonstrate how much public support there is for net neutrality. Initially it has been mainly comprised of streaming content providers such as Spotify and porn sites, but has recently been joined by the likes of Amazon, Facebook and Google.

Supporters of the repeal weren’t about to take that lying down and a group calling itself FreedomWorks has issued a press release promoting in conjunction with a bunch of what it calls free market groups. This includes the likes of Americans for Prosperity, the Center for Individual Freedom and Citizens Against Government Waste, and seems to be a hub for small-government, libertarian types.

“This site is a resource for those who support a free and open Internet, not one strapped with needless regulations from government, a solution without a problem,” said FreedomWorks President Adam Brandon. “In America, we have multiple Internet providers, access to everything under the sun, and just about everyone can get on the Internet in one way or another.”

One final twist has been served up by AT&T, which announced it is supporting the day of action in a corporate blog. Anticipating the incredulity this announcement would be met with AT&T’s SEVP (!) of External and Legal Affairs Bob Quinn Qualified the move by stating that AT&T is still opposed to Title II, but is in favour of an open internet as a general concept. The company seems to be trying to play both sides of the debate and not everyone is convinced.

While public discourse is undoubtedly on the shrill side in the US, they tend to have more sophisticated dialogue on the balance between state and individual than we do in Europe. It’s easy to be seduced by the concept of net neutrality and internet access as some kind of human right, but equally it shouldn’t be forgotten that these services are delivered by commercial enterprises that have invested heavily in them. As a wise man once said, “freedom isn’t free”.


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