The fight over net neutrality rules has entered ‘fake news’ territory.
On Dec. 14, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on a proposal that could, if the critics are to be believed, change the internet forever.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has put forward a proposal that would roll back rules protecting net neutrality, a founding principle of the internet that demands internet service providers (ISPs) treat all internet traffic equally. That means they can’t block content, throttle traffic from particular sources, or create “fast lanes” that speed up traffic for content providers that pay extra for the privilege.
Until 2015, net neutrality was essentially optional. That changed when the FCC voted to reclassify broadband providers as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act, which allowed the FCC to regulate ISPs’ practices and enforce net neutrality rules. If the new FCC proposal passes—and it’s all but certain it will—those rules will disappear, as will the Title II classification.
Needless to say, fans of net neutrality are freaking out. Millions of people have commented on the proposal, demanding the FCC not pass its plan. (Millions of more comments were found to be fake.) A We The People petition calling for Pai to resign has already surpassed its 100,000-signature goal, which (theoretically) triggers a mandatory response from the White House. And internet freedom activists are planning a nationwide protest at Verizon stores across the United States on Dec. 7.
In the face of intense opposition, which is fueled by a deep distrust of ISPs and concern for the future of the open internet, Pai this week released a list of “myths and facts” about net neutrality in an attempt to “set the record straight” on his proposal to gut net neutrality rules.
The problem is, much of the “facts” he puts forth are either wildly misleading, missing key context, or simply speculation. To be fair, there’s rampant speculation among Pai’s critics as well. So, let’s take a look at each of Pai’s “myths” and “facts” and see where the truth really lies.
1) “The end of the internet as we know it.”
MYTH: This is the end of the Internet as we know it.
FACT: The Internet was free and open before the Obama Administration’s 2015 heavy-handed Title II Internet regulations, and it will be free and open after they are repealed.
Fact-check: It’s true that the internet thrived to become what it is today without the 2015 Open Internet Order in place, but the FCC has been enforcing portions of net neutrality for more than a decade. Further, ISPs have long pushed back against any attempts to establish strong net neutrality rules—and they repeatedly violated net neutrality prior to the 2015 Open Internet Order going into effect. Furthermore, ISPs have already begun to test the rules and waver on their commitment to net neutrality principles.
MYTH: Startups will not be able to compete without Title II regulations.
FACT: Entrepreneurs starting new businesses online thrived long before Title II regulations, and they will continue to flourish with more opportunities to innovate once those regulations are repealed. Indeed, companies like Google, Facebook, Netflix, and Twitter all started and experienced tremendous growth under the previous light-touch rules.
Fact-check: Yes, the internet giants of today rose to prominence because ISPs (mostly) did not stifle them, even when the FCC lacked the current net neutrality rules. If the FCC explicitly eliminates those rules, however, it changes the environment in which ISPs are operating. That’s the worry consuming the startup community itself, and in April, more than 800 startups sent a letter to the FCC pleading with it to keep net neutrality rules in place. In short, the lack of net neutrality rules threatens startups because it gives ISPs greater power over them—even if they don’t use that power maliciously against potential competitors.
MYTH: Internet service providers will block you from visiting the websites you want to visit.
FACT: Internet service providers didn’t block websites before the Obama Administration’s heavy-handed 2015 Internet regulations and won’t after they are repealed. Any Internet service provider would be required to publicly disclose this practice and would face fierce consumer backlash as well as scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, which will have renewed authority to police unfair, deceptive, and anticompetitive practices.
Fact-check: First, let’s address the claim that ISPs “would be required to publicly disclose” any sites they block. This is technically true: The FCC’s Transparency Rules do require ISPs to provide accurate, detailed information about their service, which includes “network management”—jargon that encompasses blocking access to websites or online services or other types of censorship. But this public disclosure is buried in a sea of jargon and is not necessarily something any customer would know about. (Here’s Optimum’s disclosure page, for example.) Further, it doesn’t necessarily include a list of individual sites or services that are blocked on a particular ISP’s network.
The primary issue here is that Pai’s replacement for net neutrality is potential consumer backlash in the face of censorship. That argument—while likely true—relies on customers (or journalists) to police ISPs in the absence of federal rules. It fails to address the fact that Pai’s FCC is putting the onus on customers by stripping away the federal protections that make such a patchwork system unnecessary.
4) Broadband investment
MYTH: Investment has flourished under the current regulatory framework.
FACT: Following the adoption of the Obama Administration’s 2015 heavy-handed Internet regulations, broadband investment has fallen for two years in a row—the first time that’s happened outside of a recession in the Internet era.
Fact-check: This one is really at the heart of the issue—and Pai’s argument appears to be entirely false.
The main reason Pai wants to kill net neutrality rules is that, he claims, they are stifling the ISP industry and, therefore, limiting investment in building out and improving their networks. This is a claim the industry itself makes. However, data collected by Free Press, one of the leading pro-net neutrality non-profits, shows that investment across publicly traded ISPs has risen more than 5 percent, on average, in the two years since the net neutrality rules went into effect. In fact, Comcast increased investments by more than 26 percent. Not only that, but broadband speeds have increased since 2015, showing network improvements that benefit customers.
On top of all that, some ISP executives themselves have admitted to investors that net neutrality rules did not negatively impact their investment decisions.
All that said, some ISPs have reduced investment, with US Cellular’s business expenditures dropping by nearly 25 percent over the past two years.
So, as Business Insider reports, Pai is cherry picking data as an excuse to lift rules that could allow ISPs to expand their businesses in ways they currently can’t, such as getting paid for “fast lanes.”
5) Internet packages
MYTH: Broadband providers will charge you a premium if you want to reach certain online content.
FACT: This didn’t happen before the Obama Administration’s 2015 heavy-handed Internet regulations, and it won’t happen after they are repealed.
Fact-check: This argument is entirely based on what happened before the net neutrality rules went into effect in 2015. As noted before, it is impossible to know whether ISPs will behave the same way they did in the past, which is why people are worried about eliminating the rules.
Still, it does seem far-fetched that ISPs will try to go this route considering the hellfire of customer backlash they’ll face. But again, that is a less reliable system than having federal rules that prevent ISPs from going down that path in the first place.
MYTH: The current regulatory framework is good for competition.
FACT: Title II regulations are bad for competition. They disproportionately burden the small Internet service providers and new entrants that are best positioned to introduce more competition into the broadband marketplace.
Fact-check: Of the “facts” Pai has put forth so far, this one likely has the most validity to it. Back in April, a group of small ISPs signed a letter calling on the FCC to overturn net neutrality rules because the regulatory burden hurt their businesses. However, a report from the Verge found that the impact has been “mixed,” with some saying net neutrality rules have had no impact while others say they hurt business.
Competition in the ISP market is a problem, with millions of Americans having just one ISP option. With greater competition, the threat of public outcry would carry the chance of greater consequences for ISPs that cross a line.
That said, the FCC could simply exempt smaller ISPs from some regulations, as it did with its transparency rules earlier this year, rather than scrapping net neutrality rules across the board.
7) “Fast lanes”
MYTH: This will result in “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” on the Internet that will worsen consumers’ online experience.
FACT: Restoring Internet freedom will lead to better, faster, and cheaper broadband for consumers and give startups that need priority access (such as telehealth applications) the chance to offer new services to consumers.
Fact-check: This “fact” actually offers no facts whatsoever and serves as a tacit admission that eliminating the rule prohibiting “paid prioritization” (aka fast lanes) will, indeed, result in fast lanes. Not convinced? Comcast has already stripped its promise to not roll out fast lanes from its stated “commitment” to upholding net neutrality principles.
8) Internet bundles
MYTH: Internet service will be provided in bundles like cable television as has happened in Portugal.
FACT: The Obama FCC itself made clear that the current rules in the United States permit bundled offerings—or “curated” services, as they called it. So the law regarding bundled services will not change. Furthermore, the Portugal comparison is false; Portugal has net neutrality rules, yet plans are still offered there that allow consumers to supplement their mobile data plans with additional data packages containing specific bundles of apps.
Fact-check: This one is totally true.
An image of mobile internet offerings from a wireless provider in Portugal, MEO, went viral after Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) tweeted it as a warning against scrapping net neutrality rules.
In Portugal, with no net neutrality, internet providers are starting to split the net into packages. pic.twitter.com/TlLYGezmv6
— Ro Khanna (@RoKhanna) October 27, 2017
As Pai correctly states, however, the loophole that allows for such feature bundling does actually exist in the U.S. and is not prevented by the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality rules. What these plans take advantage of is something called “zero-rating,” a process in which internet providers don’t count certain services against data caps. The FCC tackles instances of zero-rating on a case-by-case basis—and American ISPs have taken full advantage. In response, the FCC pushed back against AT&T for its Sponsored Data service and Verizon for its FreeBee Data 360, while T-Mobile’s BingeOn offering got a free pass.
Long story short, eliminating net neutrality rules won’t make this issue any worse than it already is.
MYTH: Title II regulations are good for innovation.
FACT: President Obama’s 2015 heavy-handed Internet regulations have deterred companies from introducing new services and features. For instance, one major Internet service provider has stated that it put on hold its plans to build out its out-of-home Wi-Fi network because of the uncertainty surrounding the rules.
Fact-check: While it’s difficult to quantify all the ways an open internet affects “innovation,” Pai is right that Charter Communications paused its plan to roll out 300,000 out-of-home Wi-Fi access points after Title II reclassification went into place.
Still, if ISPs are able to stifle the success of online startups because they aren’t burdened by net neutrality rules, that too could hurt innovation.
Ultimately, however, this one’s a tough nut to crack. As University of Pennsylvania economist Gerald Faulhaber noted in her study on the issue, “there is no standard model of how innovation functions in the economy,” and there are “incomplete analytic tools to address this issue.” So, for now at least, we’ll have to rack this one up as a big ol’ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
MYTH: Reversing Title II regulations will compromise consumers’ online privacy.
FACT: Repealing the Obama Administration’s heavy-handed Internet regulations will promote consumers’ online privacy. Those regulations stripped the Federal Trade Commission of authority to protect Americans’ broadband privacy. The plan to restore Internet freedom, by contrast, will put the federal government’s most experienced privacy cop back on the beat.
Fact-check: This one is true but wildly disingenuous. The FCC had in place stronger privacy rules than what the FTC currently offers. But Congress struck down those rules earlier this year—a move Pai himself supported.
11) Digital divide
MYTH: Repealing Title II regulations will make it harder for disadvantaged Americans to get online.
FACT: Restoring Internet freedom will lead to greater investment in building and expanding broadband networks in rural and low-income areas as well as additional competition—leading to better, faster, cheaper Internet access for all Americans, including those on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Fact-check: This is entirely speculative. The argument against Pai’s assertion is that, by opening the door to fast lanes, the FCC will create an environment in which only rich communities will have the best quality internet service, thus expanding the digital divide. But considering that, as previously mentioned, net neutrality has had little impact on the investment of larger ISPs and only mixed impact on smaller (and, therefore, likely more rural) ISPs, it’s possible that eliminating the net neutrality rules will lead to greater expansion of broadband service. Still, this is a great unknown—which means Pai’s prediction is just that, not a “fact.”
12) FTC vs FCC
MYTH: The Federal Trade Commission is not well equipped and has far fewer powers to protect consumers from misconduct by Internet service providers.
FACT: The Federal Trade Commission has broad authority to police unfair, deceptive, and anticompetitive practices online and has brought over 500 enforcement actions to protect consumers online, including actions against Internet service providers and some of the biggest companies in the online ecosystem. And unlike the FCC, the Federal Trade Commission can order consumer redress (such as refunds) for violations of federal law.
Fact-check: Again, Pai is using selective facts to mislead his audience. Without getting too deep into the weeds, let’s just put it this way: The FTC’s authorities do not protect net neutrality in the way the FCC’s current rules protect net neutrality. There are limits to the FTC’s powers to police ISP activity. And given the ambiguity over its powers, putting the regulatory authority entirely on the FTC creates a reactive approach to regulation—ISPs have to break the law first, then fix what their wrongdoing later, after the FTC cracks down—rather than a proactive regulatory structure, which the FCC’s net neutrality rules provide.
13) Net neutrality comments
MYTH: More than 22 million people have filed comments with the agency. They overwhelmingly want the FCC to preserve and protect net neutrality.
FACT: The commenting process is not an opinion poll—and for good reason. For example, one third of all comments consist of a single, pro-Title II sentence: “I am in favor of strong net neutrality under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.” These 7,568,949 identical comments, however, are associated with only 50,508 unique names and street addresses. Indeed, 7,562,080 of these comments come from 45,001 “individuals” using email addresses from fakemailgenerator.com and submitting the same comment more than 90 times each. In another example, over 400,000 comments supporting Title II purport to come from “individuals” residing at the same address in Russia. In any case, as required by federal law, the chairman’s plan is based on the facts and the law rather than the quantity of comments. You can see this for yourself at [this link].
Fact-check: It’s true, the FCC’s commenting process for its net neutrality proposal has been an unmitigated disaster, with fake comments submitted both in favor and against the current net neutrality rules. A Pew Research study found that only 6 percent of the 21.7 million comments submitted in response to the proposal were unique.
14) Authority to kill net neutrality rules
MYTH: You can’t abandon the court-approved Title II rules without a change in circumstances.
FACT: The Supreme Court has reviewed and upheld only one framework for the Internet—the light-touch framework that the FCC is returning to. And court precedent makes clear that the FCC can return to that framework without any change in circumstances.
Fact-check: This matter is far from settled. If the FCC does approve the proposal to eliminate its net neutrality rules, it will spark a court battle that is expected to draw out for years.
Clarification: Pai’s claim that the internet lacked net neutrality rules prior to the 2015 Open Internet Order is false. Since at least 2002, FCC has repeatedly enforced some aspects of net neutrality.