The Federal Communications Commission will soon begin the long process of trying to roll back the Open Internet Order, the FCC’s barely two-year-old rule that prohibits internet service providers and wireless companies from having any say in what you do or where you go online. Though the Commission’s lone Democrat is unlikely to change the minds of her anti-regulation colleagues, she’s not ready to admit defeat just yet.
“Is the FCC shirking away from its responsibility to ensure all Americans have affordable access to communications services?” asked FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn at the Connected Communities Public Forum on Access and Affordability in Los Angeles last night. “Things like affordable broadband service, competition, a free and open internet, viewpoint diversity, just and reasonable phone rates for inmates and their families who need to stay in touch and basic privacy protections. Are these objectives being slowly dismantled under this administration?”
On May 18, Clyburn, fellow Commissioner Michael O’Rielly and Chairman Ajit Pai will take their first vote on Pai’s proposal to turn back the clock on net neutrality rules that prevent ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, Charter, and AT&T from impeding users’ access to certain websites or online services, or from prioritizing their own sites and services over that of the competition.
“In just a matter of days, the FCC’s majority will tee up an item aimed at dismantling the open internet protections that so many Americans fought for and won back in 2015 – over 4 million comments were filed to be exact,” said Clyburn last night. “So we cannot afford to remain silent.”
These “get-your-hands-off-my-internet” guidelines are particularly needed in an era where ISPs are increasingly merging with content providers, giving them more incentive to give their own products priority, regardless of what the customer wants. Comcast now not only owns the massive NBCUniversal TV, movie, and home video empire; it’s invested significant amounts of money in online properties like BuzzFeed and Vox Media. It’s a major investor in Hulu and is reportedly looking to launch more of its own online streaming services in the near future.
Similarly, AT&T is in the process of acquiring Time Warner and it’s already using discounted access to one of that media giant’s big properties, HBO, as a major marketing point for its wireless service and its DirecTV Now streaming platform. Verizon is reportedly looking to make a similar merger with a mass media company.
“In a world without net neutrality, your internet service provider could charge you even more to access your preferred websites, or worse, block those sites all together,” explained Commissioner Clyburn. “Or imagine if your broadband provider, who also happens to own a major Spanish language broadcaster, gives priority access to their website, but slows down the speeds of your favorite but competing website. These are the very real scenarios that could happen, if the FCC’s majority and the big broadband providers get their way.”
Neutrality wouldn’t be as much of a concern if people had more options on how to get internet access.
“Did you know that when it comes to broadband access at home, just 20% of Americans have a choice of two providers or more?” noted Clyburn. “Without real competition, are companies really incentivized to improve customer service, service quality, or pricing?”
Even if consumers had a choice of multiple providers, the ones that exist aren’t exactly known for providing quality service. The Commissioner cited a 2016 survey by our colleagues at Consumer Reports, which found that only about one-third of Americans were satisfied with their service.
“I find this highly alarming. Why is it that some of the largest communications providers in this country consistently rank among the lowest in consumer satisfaction?” asked Clyburn, circling back to the big question: “Could it possibly have anything to do with a lack of robust competition?”
While Clyburn may be just one voice on the FCC (two Commissioner spots currently sit vacant), she hopes that consumers will speak up in an effort to protect their rights.
“Do not stay silent and accept the absence of broadband competition,” she said. “No one should be shortchanged because of where they live or how much money they make. Nor should anyone have to face poor customer service or subscribe to a Lifeline program that requires you to pay at least 25 percent of the cost of service… Are you willing to stand up, demand from us, and join forces with those who are willing to fight, to ensure you and your families have robust, affordable communications services and that there is a media landscape that reflects the rich diversity found in your community?”