Internet’s Biggest Companies Ask FCC to Please Leave Net Neutrality Alone

Here we are again: Years after the last big net neutrality fight, key players are once more setting down their stakes, drawing their lines in the sand, and every other metaphor for preparing to wage a legalistic battle over the open internet. The latest player to have its say is a trade group representing basically all of the internet’s biggest companies, and it’s begging the FCC to just leave well enough alone already.

The organization represents a bunch of member companies you’ve probably heard of, like Amazon, eBay, Etsy, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Lyft, Netflix, Pinterest, Reddit, Spotify, Twitter, Uber, and a few dozen others.

In other words, it’s a coalition of heavy-hitters, and they think the Open Internet Rule of 2015 is working just fine as is, thank you very much.

According to a new filing [PDF], representatives from the Internet Association recently met with new FCC chair—and longtime net neutrality foe—Ajit Pai, to express their concerns about the future of net neutrality.

As a refresher, that rule, which the Commission passed in Feb. 2015, sets down three bright-line rules for internet service providers:

  1. Broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
  2. They may not impair or degrade lawful internet traffic on the basis of content, application, services, or any classes thereof.
  3. They may not favor some internet traffic over other internet traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind—no paid prioritization or fast lanes

In its filing, the IA reiterated its position that it, “continues its vigorous support” of the rule, “which is a vital component of the free and open internet.”

“The internet industry is uniform in its belief that net neutrality preserves the consumer experience, competition, and innovation online,” it continues. “In other words, existing net neutrality rules should be enforced and kept intact.”

The IA points out that the FCC’s rule has already been upheld in court, and emphasizes that its own “preliminary economic research suggests that the OI Order did not have a negative impact on broadband internet access service investment.”

That research is at odds with what Pai has been claiming, which is that since 2015, having the rule in place has harmed investment in broadband deployment, upgrades, and technologies and has hurt the bottom line of the companies that provide it. However, a look at the ISPs’ publicly available financial data for 2016 and 2017 gives no indication that broadband providers have cut back on investment.

This meeting comes on the heel of another meeting Pai reportedly had with telecom companies last week.

Sources say that in that meeting, which included representatives from trade groups representing Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and others, Pai outlined a plan for how to strip Title II reclassification from internet service providers and undo the Open Internet Rule.

There has been no public ex parte summary of that meeting filed, because the law does not require one in this case. Nor was the IA required to file one. In a master example of how to politely and legalistically throw shade D.C.-style, the IA notes in its filing that, “Although not all issues [discussed in the meeting] were subject to the FCC’s ex parte rules, IA wishes to file in order to facilitate transparency.”

These are familiar, well-worn battle lines. Back in 2014 and 2015, when the FCC was still trying to craft the Open Internet Rule, the fight broke down largely the same way, and it’s easy to see why.

Large-scale providers of internet service—Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and the rest—fought for the regulation that would maximize their potential to make money and minimize the rule set under which they had to operate. If the law ceases blocking paid prioritization and stops caring about zero-rating and interconnection agreements, those are more doors those companies can keep open to consider as growing revenue streams down the line.

Internet-based technology companies, on the other hand, fought for the regulation that maximizes their potential to make money. You can’t launch a scrappy new garage start-up and go big if you can’t afford to pay off ISPs for rights to access their customers on the same level as entrenched incumbents. And if you’re an entrenched incumbent, you don’t want million-dollar payoffs to the ISPs for rights to access their customers eating into your margins.

It just so happens that having a free and open internet that benefits consumers dovetails nicely with the preferred outcome for the giants of streaming and social media, and so consumer advocates and companies like Reddit and Netflix have been allies when it comes to net neutrality.

The businesses aren’t the only ones gearing up for the next round. Lawmakers in favor of the existing rule are already promising that attempts to reverse the 2015 rule will “unleash a political firestorm” that makes the the last go—which even drew in the likes of John Oliver, along with four million members of the public—look tiny by comparison.

Consumer Reports