Staff Columnist

Reports of the internet's death greatly exaggerated

Some Iowa policymakers responding to end of net neutrality

Chairman Ajit Pai drinks coffee ahead of the vote on the repeal of so called net neutrality rules at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Chairman Ajit Pai drinks coffee ahead of the vote on the repeal of so called net neutrality rules at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

If you’re reading this, American civilization has survived its first days without net neutrality. Rejoice!

The repeal of the federal government’s net neutrality rules took hold last week, ending Obama-era regulations which advocates say ensured a “free and open” internet. Millions of critics warned that decision would mark a grim new era for the internet.

To the contrary, major internet providers in Iowa and around the country have vowed they won’t block or slow customers’ access to websites or other network services. That could change in the coming months or years, but federal rules will require companies to disclose those practices to consumers.

I can think of no other current policy debate with a greater imbalance between public outrage and actual evidence of negative consequences. The discussion is dominated by slogans and memes.

Some states and cities have responded by trying to revive net neutrality on their own, including here in Iowa.

The Iowa City Council discussed agreeing to the municipal net neutrality pledge at meetings earlier this year. Council members agreed to the idea in principle, but Mayor Jim Throgmorton ultimately concluded “signing it would give the impression that the city has more enforcement mechanisms in place than it does in reality.”

Iowa Democrats introduced a bill in the Legislature to impose statewide net neutrality rules. The Iowa Internet Neutrality Act sought to impose a penalty of up to $40,000 per violation against service providers found to be restricting lawful content.

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Companion bills in the Iowa House and Iowa Senate attracted just one sponsor each and never advanced out of subcommittees.

Lawmakers in at least 29 states have proposed net neutrality legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Oregon, Vermont and Washington have enacted such bills, and governors in several other states have issued executive orders to diminish the impact of the FCC’s ruling.

Those laws face uncertain futures, as the FCC reasoned in its decision that only the federal government can impose such rules. Commissioners wrote last year, “We conclude that we should exercise our authority to pre-empt any state or local requirements that are inconsistent with the federal deregulatory approach we adopt today.”

Federal pre-emption is one of the things at issue in a lawsuit against the FCC from Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and 21 other state attorneys generals, almost all Democrats. The politician lawyers are challenging the FCC’s decision to scale back net neutrality protections, arguing the move is “arbitrary and capricious” and relies on an erroneous interpretation of the Telecommunications Act.

Miller took the opportunity to get in on the net neutrality slogan game, saying in January, “By repealing these rules, the FCC changed the so-called ‘internet of things’ to the internet of kings.” It rhymes, but it doesn’t make sense. “The internet of things” — which refers to network-connected devices and appliances — actually stands to be greatly improved by the removal of net neutrality rules.

Amid all the legal and political maneuvering, details about the actual threats posed by the regulatory changes are scarce. What are net neutrality advocates afraid of? The future they foresee isn’t exactly bleak.

One possibility is “internet fast lanes” to give users faster or better internet service, paid for either by customers or content sponsors. That could be crucial for advances in driverless cars and other smart devices. Another possibility is “zero rating,” where certain services wouldn’t count toward data limits, like unlimited video streaming or free access to online encyclopedias.

Are you trembling in fear yet?

We also could see different models of internet subscriptions. Your grandmother might pay a lower base price for a slower connection and access to only basic internet activities, like web browsing and email. Frequent users could pay more for faster connections and more data usage.

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That’s similar to the way Americans have paid for home cable access for many years. The horror!

To be fair, there are a handful of cases where internet providers have engaged in predatory practices, unfairly blocking access to certain services. In every case, even before net neutrality took hold, those policies were struck down by government regulators or faced backlash from angry consumers.

In other words, net neutrality regulations did not solve any real problem. Those regulatory mechanisms already exist elsewhere, predating the FCC’s 400-page declaratory order in 2015.

Without those rules, Americans stand on a brave new frontier of internet history. Fear not.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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