The Federal Communications Commission is set to vote on the future of net neutrality at its next meeting on December 14, potentially ending the internet as we know it. With Republicans in control of the FCC, it’s pretty much a done deal. So why exactly is the FCC getting so salty and defensive in its fact sheets?
The FCC released a three-page document Tuesday that claims to bust a whole bunch of “myths” around net neutrality, which is the long-held principle that internet service providers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T should not be allowed to throttle, tier, or otherwise control how people use the internet.
While the document lists 14 individual “myths” and offers a corrective “fact” for each, the whole thing basically just repeats the same talking points over and over. For instance, the fact sheet mentions some minor variation of “the Obama Administration’s 2015 heavy-handed Internet regulations” six different times to explain its current actions.
The fact sheet doesn’t offer any explicit overarching thesis or takeaway, but the message is clear enough from how often it is repeated: The FCC’s 2015 decision was an act of onerous regulation that has stifled business, and all the current plan will do is restore things to the pre-2015 status quo. Since net neutrality existed before the FCC’s 2015 decision, the fact sheet argues, what non-alarmist reason would someone have for thinking things would be any different once things go back to how they were?
That argument, though, ignores just why the FCC made its 2015 decision, and what exactly that decision was. The earlier FCC moved to reclassify ISPs from “information providers” to what’s known as “common carriers,” which is basically an acknowledgment that telecommunication companies don’t actually create any of the content people go to the internet to see. And the impetus for that move came from the 2014 D.C. District Court case Verizon Communications Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission, which held the FCC couldn’t enforce net neutrality rules unless ISPs were common carriers.
So remove telecommunications companies’ common carrier status, and the whole notion of net neutrality as something the FCC can regulate — which it did before 2015, though often with great legal difficulty — collapses instantly. The fact sheet has an answer for this, which is basically that the free market will reward companies that abide by net neutrality and punish those that don’t, assuming net neutrality is actually something consumers care about. Anyone who has dealt with cable companies might have some doubts about the value of consumer choice when it comes to ISPs, but that’s the FCC’s argument.
The thing is, the FCC’s makeup — chairman Ajit Pai, the architect of the proposed new rules, is a Trump appointee, and he’s joined by two Republican commissioners for a decisive 3-2 advantage — means there’s no particular reason the commission needs to explain itself to the public at all. But the outcry over net neutrality has been so serious, with Pai saying his children are facing harassment over his proposals, that the fact sheet must feel warranted.
Considering how repetitive and shaky the document’s logic is, not to mention its reliance on heavily disputed claims that the 2015 regulations have stifled investment, it’s probably fair to say the FCC’s anti-net neutrality stance isn’t about to enjoy a sudden positive reversal of fortune in the court of public opinion.