Debate, not hysteria, is necessary on net neutrality

I made the mistake of checking Twitter to see what people had to say about the vote tomorrow on net neutrality…

If you haven’t been paying attention, it turns out that the FCC is about toabolish the internet, or at the very least outsource it to Portugal, and may or may not have commissioned an army of Russian bots to carry out this diabolical scheme, which might mean internet users can no longer take online classes, use their public library, or watch Netflix.

I understand the allure of hyperbole in an ecosystem where publishers — and politicians — live or die on clicks. But I continue to be amazed by how many otherwise reasonable people in the tech industry — tech professionals with firsthand understanding of the legal, economic and technical nuances of this issue who really ought to know better — get swept up in these tinfoil hat fever dreams.

Take one of my Bay Area Congressman, Ro Khanna — a tech industry veteran whose background ought to position him as one of the most authoritative leaders in Washington on innovation policy issues. But in this debate, Congressman Khanna has regrettably chosen to plant his flag on a confusingand Snopes-debunked argument that the FCC’s action this week will put the U.S. on a path to emulating Portugal.

I’m not sure this type of argument really furthers the debate in any constructive way, other than leading many to discover that Portugal actually does have respected net neutrality laws and that net neutrality is not the same thing as zero rating (which is actually allowed under the 2015 Wheeler rules — and if T-Mobile’s subscriber growth is any indication, hardly appears to be “anti-consumer” unless you define “anti-consumer” as “very popular with consumers”).

I think we could all stand to take a step back, a deep breath, and a fresh look at what’s actually being proposed here.

And we can start with stating the key point that seems to be getting completely ignored in the hysteria: Title II is not the same thing as net neutrality. And net neutrality isn’t going anywhere.

First, every major (and just about every not-so-major) broadband provider continues to state publicly, repeatedly, and unwaveringly that they plan to uphold the core principles of an open internet regardless of how the FCC rules. No blocking, no throttling, no unfair discrimination.

I mention this not because ISPs deserve the benefit of the doubt, but because the FCC’s forthcoming order doesn’t propose to give them the benefit of the doubt. Instead, it will require every provider to publicly disclose their neutrality commitments, while at the same time re-establishing the FTC’s authority to police the industry for bad actors.

Secondly, the “sky is falling” crowd seems to be willfully ignoring the reality of the broadband marketplace today. Providers have built successful businesses providing consumers access to something the market now demands, the entire open internet. The idea that consumers would stand by and accept anything less or that providers would intentionally degrade their own product in the absence of Title II rules seems inconsistent with history, economics, and common sense. Skeptics rightfully point to a handful of examples of supposed neutrality violations, but fail to acknowledge those issues were called out and adequately resolved without any need for 1930’s-era utility rules.

There is good reason to believe that this combination of market pressures, FCC transparency rules, prudent oversight by various state Attorneys Generals and FTC enforcement will keep the internet open and free. Such an important issue demands robust debate — but this debate should remain rooted in facts instead of taking a headlong dive into the unhinged hysteria of the Twitterverse.

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