Editorial: Keep internet access open and equal

By The Herald Editorial Board

If you’re not happy with the high-occupancy toll lanes on I-405 that allow drivers who can afford it pay a fee to escape slower traffic, imagine the same two tiers for users on the information super highway.

Since 2015, the Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet rules have prevented broadband service providers from creating those toll lanes and otherwise restricting access to a fast, fair and open internet. That policy, also referred to as net neutrality, says broadband providers can’t block access to legal content and services, can’t throttle or degrade data speed and can’t set up paid “fast lanes” that favor their affiliates and those willing and able to pay more.

But the FCC’s new chairman, Ajit Pai, a former Verizon attorney elevated to lead the FCC by President Trump, dissented with his fellow commission members in 2015 and now has announced his plans to roll back his agency’s Open Internet rules. Announced Wednesday, Pai announced moves to weaken the rules that provide open access for websites, online services and internet users.

Pai, The New York Times reported, said internet service should not be treated as a public utility, as it is now under the Open Internet rules, and that service providers should be left to police themselves.

Among the proposals, Pai will seek to replace the FCC’s mandatory rules with voluntary pledges by internet service providers, including Verizon, Comcast and AT&T, that would be spelled out in their terms of service and administered instead by the Federal Trade Commission rather than the FCC itself.

Washington’s U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who supported adoption of the 2015 rules, joined other Democrats, including 1st District Rep. Suzan DelBene, in criticizing Pai’s move, saying the rules were important to more than three million jobs in the internet economy, protected consumers access and promote innovation.

If Pai is successful, Cantwell said in a release, “the FCC will create a two-tiered internet, allowing Fortune 500 companies to pay for special internet access … and leave slow lanes for small businesses and consumers.”

DelBene concurred, saying her district “is home to some of the most innovative industries and businesses in the world, and the FCC’s shortsighted decision to roll back net neutrality protections harms both businesses and consumers.”

Those concerns were echoed by several members of the Forbes Technology Council, who wrote in a recent article that weakening net neutrality would harm consumer choice and the environment for technology startups; stifle businesses with a pay-to-play system; and decrease competition among large and small companies.

Making the Open Internet standards voluntary rather than mandatory opens them to tinkering and abuse down the road with little regulation to prevent changes. And transferring supervision to the FTC, rather than the FCC, will be a problem in Washington and several other western states, The Hill reported Tuesday: The FTC lacks jurisdiction to regulate Verizon, AT&T and other phone companies in nine western states, following a decision last year by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Pai’s rewrite could take months, but he’s not expected to meet much resistance from fellow commissioners. Normally a five-member board, the current commission has only three members: Pai and another Republican and one Democrat.

Pai already has reversed other Obama-era FCC rules and policies, Fortune magazine reported, including lifting price limits that internet providers are allowed to charge schools, libraries and small businesses and easing restrictions on the number of TV stations a single company can own.

Republicans in Congress earlier this month demonstrated that the nation’s major telecom companies have their ear, following the vote to repeal privacy regulations that now allow internet service providers to sell customer’s browsing history and other information to advertisers.

The telecoms may chafe at the internet being regulated as a utility, but those regulations haven’t held them back from turning a profit.

What Open Internet rules have allowed are for small businesses to innovate, develop and reach their customers and assured affordable and responsive access to the internet for consumers.

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