The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission wants to let Comcast, Verizon and other broadband companies turn the internet into a latter-day version of cable TV, in which they decide what customers can watch and how much they pay for that content.
That’s essentially what would happen under the proposal by the chairman, Ajit Pai, to abandon the commission’s network neutrality rules, which prevent telecom companies from interfering with how their customers use the internet.
Net neutrality prevents those companies from having companies like Amazon pay a fee to get their content delivered more quickly than their rivals’, and from having the firms throttle other services and websites, even blocking customer access to, say, Netflix or an online newspaper.
Under Mr. Pai’s proposal, telecom companies would effectively be allowed to sell you a basic internet plan that might include only limited access to Google and email. For Facebook and Twitter you might need a slightly more expensive deluxe plan. The premium plan might include access to Netflix and Amazon. Oh, and by the way, media businesses eager to gain more users could pay broadband companies to be included in their enhanced basic or deluxe plans.
That might sound like a far-fetched scenario. But there is reason to fear that some version of that awful vision could become a reality, because most Americans have just one or two choices for broadband access at home. People have access to four national wireless companies, but those connections tend to be slower and less useful for data-intensive applications than wired service provided by cable and telephone companies.
Instead of making sure that broadband companies can’t take advantage of their gatekeeping power over the internet, Mr. Pai wants to let them do whatever they want. All they would be required to do is be “transparent” about what they are doing. In other words, they could simply tell customers what to expect in endless contracts filled with legalese and printed in tiny type. Mr. Pai further argues that the Federal Trade Commission would then make sure that companies were living up to their promises, essentially abdicating any responsibility the Federal Communications Commission has for the most important communications system in the country.