It’s been portrayed as a standoff between giants — tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Netflix vs. service providers like Comcast and Verizon.
But we should all tune in as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) closes the comment period on net neutrality this week and begins to rewrite the rules of the internet.
The changes could affect the cost of your smartphone service, the quality of your internet reception and who controls what you can view, read and download.
The two sides have swamped the FCC with 20 million comments, boiled complex issues down to competing slogans and shined more heat than light on the topic.
Here’s a look at what a wide collection of experts say about the net neutrality decision.
What’s at stake: On the surface, the proposed change is about internet traffic: Should we do away with current net neutrality rules that require all internet traffic to move the same way, preventing service providers from blocking or slowing online content delivery? And do we move to a free-market policy that allows faster and better online positioning for companies willing to pay more?
These turn out to be loaded questions. The impacts would expand the powers of the companies controlling pipelines that are the spine of the digital economy.
Over the decade that net neutrality has been taking shape, the role of the internet has expanded enormously. From a tool for e-mail, Facebook posts and movies, it’s become the conduit for retail, entertainment, media, banking, even law and medicine.
So when the Trump administration reshuffled the FCC, which immediately announced it would revisit rules adopted in 2015, the two camps began one of the most overheated campaigns in the short history of modern technology.
Politically, right and left quickly fell into place on opposite sides. Liberals lined up with Google, Amazon, Netflix and the tech camp under the flag of keeping an “open internet.” Conservatives sided with the cable and service providers in what proponents call “restoring internet freedom.”
It’s also about money, and how much companies on the service and content side share in the enormous revenues from the internet.
Why should I care? Changes will affect the quality, costs and options for wireless, cable and broadband service for phones, TV, computers, e-readers, digital assistants and whatever comes next.
Part of the argument for changing the rules is that one-size-fits-all transmission doesn’t allow for enough investment to keep up with technology.
“A lot of people fail to understand how many billions of dollars have to go into building out these networks,” said Randolph May, president of The Free State Foundation, a nonprofit that favors free-market solutions.
Others insist the cable and phone companies are having no trouble investing to expand the infrastructure — and that government oversight and enforcement are needed to protect all of us.
That raises another issue to watch: the progress internet providers are making in expanding broadband and wireless service. The U.S. may be home to the world’s tech leaders, but we rank only in the middle of the pack globally on internet speed and quality.
Here’s where change advocates have an important point. Too many rural areas have weak service and little competition.
“The internet is not a privilege. It’s not a luxury,” said Doug Brake, senior analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which is pushing for change. “You need it to apply for jobs, to apply for health care … for kids to do their homework. Broadband is needed to participate in life.”
How about costs? Although the FCC said it intends to alter the rules, it won’t fill in specifics until probably this fall, after comments are analyzed. That hasn’t prevented predictions.
Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor who came up with the phrase “net neutrality,” said it’s clear the rule changes would bring price hikes in a betrayal of the populist rhetoric that helped decide the election.
Opponents of net neutrality say the business model wouldn’t change with the new rules, so rates should be stable.
The more likely outcome, though, is that prices will go up for some, and perhaps down for others, while consumers will have more options based on how and how much they use the internet.
A key part of the likely change will be “paid-prioritization,” which means companies could pay for faster and dedicated bandwidth as well as better positioning for their content — the same way a Google ad goes to the top of your search listing. Those costs are almost certainly going to come back to consumers in one way or another.
First Amendment issues: The most far-reaching question is what the changes would mean for the flow of information. If companies are charged for superior services and positioning, does that create a new and uneven playing field based on ability to pay?
First Amendment arguments have been raised by both sides.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., called net neutrality “absolutely the First Amendment issue of our time,” referring to how open and egalitarian the internet would remain.
Others make an entirely different First Amendment case on behalf of service providers. Their roles would change from a kind of utility to a form of publisher, giving them rights to do as they please with the content they provide.
Whether First Amendment law itself applies, questions loom large on how the new rules would preserve free speech, prevent carriers from suppressing views and keep corporate interests in check.
This is where volume rises.
“We’d just be turning our democracy over to a handful of companies whose only motivation is to please Wall Street,” said Copps, the former commissioner and interim chair at the FCC.
Service providers on occasion have shown themselves willing to slow traffic of a competitor, highlight content they create or have an interest in and pressure companies when negotiations are underway.
“If you don’t have a cop on the beat, if you have an FCC that is a caretaker, you’re going to embolden these carriers to engage in practices that could harm consumers,” said Robert Frieden, a Penn State University professor of telecommunications and law.
Yet misdeeds by cable and phone companies have been rare, and if they violate the rules, existing state and federal consumer protection laws and fair trade standards would apply. Proponents of change say the open market will do much to maintain fairness.
“The last thing we want,” said Christopher Yoo, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and leading authority on technology, “is to have regulatory intervention that results in decisions that create disincentive for investment.”
Tune in, stay skeptical: With so much at stake, each side complains about misinformation coming from the other. Few voices in this debate are objective. Many — whether in think tanks or universities — accept money from companies whose financial fortunes are tied to the outcome.
A Wall Street Journal investigation last month uncovered millions of dollars in payments from Google to professors doing research on regulatory issues the company cared about — often without disclosing the payments. Cable and phone companies are funding their own experts, sometimes, as in politics, from organizations on both sides of the issue.
So bring a dose of skepticism — and tune into this debate. With the comment period ending Aug. 30, the FCC will work on new rules under a timetable stretching into the fall.
All signs are that the FCC will give service providers more flexibility and go to lighter oversight. But the outpouring of comments — with huge numbers in favor of keeping things as they are — shows there’s deep concern about doing away with net neutrality.
Both sides have some valid points: The reach and quality of internet service does not match its importance. We need more competition. The FCC still needs to regulate an industry that shapes both our economy and our democracy.
Compromise is hard to come by today, but the tech and communications fields would be wise to show how it’s done.
Anders Gyllenhaal, formerly editor of the Star Tribune, is a senior editor at McClatchy (@Agyllenhaal).