Whether you’re streaming cat videos or brushing up on the Rohingya Muslim crackdown in Myanmar, net neutrality requires an internet service provider that allows consumers to do both at the same speed.
On December 14, the five people who make up the Federal Communications Commission will vote on whether to end net neutrality, giving ISPs the ability to fix the competition, so to speak, by loading the pages of their choosing faster than others, or prioritizing customers.
That could mean dictating how quickly a certain news story loads, or controlling the media users can consume by not loading it at all. Or, as another example, Comcast could slow down the access speed to Netflix in order to promote Xfinity TV, its own streaming service.
But Paul G. Mahoney, a current University of Virginia School of Law professor and former dean from 2008-2016, says losing net neutrality might not be such a bad thing.
“I don’t think relaxing the current net neutrality rules will harm consumers, and might possibly help them,” Mahoney says, because it will reduce internet service providers’ regulatory compliance costs, and some of the cost reduction could be passed on to consumers, he says.
Current net neutrality rules diminish new internet service and pricing models, and the FCC chair has argued that it would be better to allow experimentation and permit antitrust regulators to stop any that aren’t competitive, says Mahoney.
“This is a reasonable argument and points to another possible benefit for consumers,” he adds.
When then-UVA law professor Tim Wu coined the phrase “net neutrality” in 2003, Mahoney says many people thought internet content would always be decentralized—which was not the case.
The main issue at stake now, he says, is how much Netflix, Facebook, Amazon and Google will pay ISPs to stream content. “The government does not need to get involved in that battle,” he says.
Thomas Nachbar, a UVA law professor and senior fellow at the school’s Center for National Security Law, calls the current debate nuanced, and agrees with his colleague’s stance on government involvement.
“Both sides have a point,” he says. “On the one hand, we don’t want communications carriers to have too much power. …and on the other, it’s probably not a great idea for the government to be in the network design business.”
And in today’s debate, Nachbar says “both sides list a parade of horribles, but we’ve been living under a back-and-forth regime of greater and lesser neutrality for two decades without wild swings in how the internet works, despite the regulatory shifts.”
The debate first sparked in the late ’90s and early 2000s, about whether a carrier could prevent a consumer from using an independent internet service provider. The FCC said yes, taking a non-neutrality stance.
“And what happened?” asks Nachbar. “Not much.”
As it turned out, as long as customers could access the internet, they didn’t really care who their provider was, according to Nachbar.
He adds, “Neutrality advocates call upon the same few examples of carrier discrimination, but generally networks have remained open without neutrality rules.”
Ting, a locally based internet service provider, joined 200 companies including Twitter, Reddit and Airbnb, in sending a letter to FCC chair Ajit Pai on November 27 to encourage protecting current net neutrality rules. The commission is expected to vote 3-2 in favor of giving net neutrality the axe.
Monica Webb, a spokesperson for Ting, which has a long history of supporting an open internet and encouraging others to take action, says even if the vote passes, the company won’t change the way it operates.
“In terms of how it affects our business, Ting will uphold the principles of net neutrality, whether we are required to or not,” says Webb. “It’s simply the right thing to do.”