Inaction by a perpetually polarized Congress once again has left the courts to iron out a major consumer issue. Fortunately, a court decision on net neutrality this month is a win for consumers.
The issue has been ricocheting between courts and the Federal Communications Commission for years. The FCC wants to make sure Internet service providers offer equal access to all users and content providers.
Some internet companies — Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, AT&T, etc. — would like to be able to demand higher payments to provide faster data speeds. They’d charge internet companies a premium to ensure that their data has a privileged route to your computer.
If Netflix, for example, didn’t want to pay, its streaming movies would wind up in the slow lane. Some might call that extortion. “Mighty nice digital business model you have there. It’d be a real shame if all of your customers’ movies started stuttering.”
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Netflix, of course, would pay. It would have to. And it would likely pass the costs onto consumers.
Netflix and other big, established players in the content world could afford to pay hefty premiums. The same isn’t true for cash-strapped startups. As a result, innovation and competition could suffer.
Net neutrality aims to prevent that by putting everyone on an equal footing. Data would be data. Customers pay to access whatever they like.
Yet to hear the critics speak, any government oversight or regulation is bad news.
In today’s world, internet access is as essential as a landline phone was a few decades ago. The FCC therefore has a clear role to play in protecting customers.
A 2-1 ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the FCC’s regulatory role. The majority opinion also reinforced the legitimacy of net neutrality and other FCC policies to ensure consumer privacy in the data gathered by broadband companies.
Certainly the FCC must be respectful of what citizens want, and soliciting public comments, as happened last year, is a worthy venture. But even that effort was marred by orchestrated campaigns, some backed by the Koch brothers, who oppose government oversight.
The legal challenges are far from over. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is almost certain. That means there is still time for lawmakers to do their jobs.
Policy developed through litigation is rarely preferable to deliberative legislation. Rather than wait years for final resolution, Congress should clarify the rules of the road for the internet and net neutrality.
Americans can thank lobbyists for preventing that from happening. Cable and mobile phone companies, backed by Republicans in Congress, want a hands-off approach. They argue that regulation will stymie investment and improvements. They contend it’s unfair for the big music and movie providers to hog internet pathways without paying extra.
The recent court decision establishes reasonable order. Only Congress, however, can short-circuit years of costly delays while awaiting higher court review.
Many Americans receive their internet service bundled with cable or satellite service, and they hold these providers in pretty low regard. Indeed, approval ratings for cable companies are almost as low as for Congress.
Missouri’s Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill partnered with Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman last month to hold a hearing on cable and satellite providers, focusing on practices involving billing, fees, refunds and other customer service issues.
“Sen. McCaskill’s report shows that Americans are often unhappy with their cable and satellite service,” Portman said. “Questionable customer service techniques and confusion surrounding billing practices have led consumers to feel mistreated.”
Hearings are only a start. Action is required.
Providers have demonstrated they can’t be trusted to keep their customers’ best interests first. If that’s the case, they certainly can’t be trusted to ensure a fair internet playing field.
Love them or hate them, our mobile phones and net-connected devices are essential in many lives. The government owes its citizens oversight and privacy protection.