A year ago today, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed the harmful 2015 internet regulation dubiously titled the “Open Internet Order.” The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNET, Ars Technica, Recode, The Verge, and advocacy groups such as Free Press and Public Knowledge predictably forecasted apocalyptic consequences to the rollback of the regulation, mischaracterizing the Restoring Internet Freedom Order (RIFO) which replaced it. CNN declared “the end of the internet as we know it,” and other media outlets said the RIFO was “gutting the rules that protect the internet,” and “that the internet has no oversight.” A year later, the internet is alive and well. The media and pundits are unlikely to issue corrections, but here are some facts to remember.
When the media talks about the end of the internet, they are referring to the end of the price control that favored Silicon Valley at the expense of consumers. The Sacramento Bee lamented that California’s tech companies “could be forced to pay more money to keep using the internet as we do today.” Let’s hope that California’s companies start to pay more, as Netflix and YouTube account for some 60 percent of all downstream internet traffic. We don’t all have the same tastes, or watch the same movies. It’s utterly reasonable that entertainment should be flexibly priced and that the largest providers should contribute to the cost of delivery. In any case, the companies don’t appear to be paying more as a result of the repeal, and Netflix said the change does not impact its business.
Many media outlets have said the FCC is removing all rules, when in fact the FCC has strengthened its transparency rules, the most important of all. These media outlets also claimed the FCC has removed “all” oversight when the agency has actually added cops on the beat. Today there are not one, but two, federal agencies tasked with protecting the internet. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) policed the internet from 1996 to 2015, a period when the internet experienced massive growth and success. Given its considerable prowess in enforcement (some 500 actions against internet service providers and a $100 million case against an ISP for transparency violations in 2014) and consumer protection (its ability to recover funds for consumers), the media should celebrate the restoration of the FTC’s authority to police the internet.
In 2015 the FCC claimed that its rules were underpinned by a “virtuous circle” and predicted increased investment in and deployment of networks, but the opposite happened. Chairman Ajit Pai testified in Congress that the rules depressed investment and that the RIFO reversed that trend. The FCC has also assiduously documented slowed network deployment in wireless and wireline technology under the Open Internet Order. The earlier FCC claims of Title II underpinning innovation were also unfounded, as a study across 53 countries showed that multi-stakeholder models have proven more effective than hard regulation. Additional harms include loss of privacy protections and consumer sovereignty, and threats of violence directed at internet freedom supporters.
Regulatory advocates also claimed that ISPs would censor content in the wake of the repeal, but there haven’t been reports of this occurring. However, complaints about bias and removal of content by internet platforms are on the rise.
This shows how some media outlets mislead readers, an unfortunate disservice that impedes policymakers from making meaningful updates to the Communications Act and drafting a modern net neutrality law. AEI scholars have followed the internet regulation controversy for years, describing a range of policy solutions to keep the internet open and free. Indeed, America’s ISPs largely agree to abide by the tenets of net neutrality (Comcast has upheld FCC-imposed rules as part of a consent decree for a decade). However, many wisely object to the imposition of Title II, a statute that gives the FCC undue power to regulate the internet.
In 2019, the focus again will be on the courts with decisions expected to affirm the FCC’s RIFO and to strike down states’ attempts to make their own internet regulation. The 116th Congress has an opportunity enshrine net neutrality with a proper law, something some 50 nations have done.