Net neutrality: Look, we’ve been over this

GUEST:

It’s now been a good couple of years since the FCC’s landmark ruling that codified net neutrality as we know it. The sky hasn’t fallen as net neutrality adversaries vehemently threatened. Competition, innovation, and investment by ISPs remains healthy, despite what opponents may claim. More importantly, the Internet remains a fair playing field as far as how data traffic is handled, with traffic from all sources treated equally.

That’s great! Everything’s just great. Except it’s not. At this year’s Mobile World Congress, newly appointed FCC chairman Ajit Pai recently labeled net neutrality a “mistake,” signaling that the commission under his lead intends to reduce or eliminate the equal treatment of Internet traffic. Seriously.

The FCC’s 2015 order had defended net neutrality by reclassifying ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Doing so gave the FCC the authority to impose regulations on U.S.-based Internet providers that effectively imposed net neutrality practices. Today, ISPs cannot slow down Internet service for any reason other than “reasonable network management.” This, in turn, means any schemes to treat online traffic unequally are strictly forbidden. The concept of “fast lanes” for specific types of data – where customers or businesses pay extra to have data from certain sites delivered faster and more reliably – cannot legally exist.

While this order provides the basic framework for a net neutrality that more or less gives every digital business a fair environment in which to pursue success, it still has ample room for improvement. The worst loophole to sneak through the 2015 legislation is the practice of “zero rating,” where ISPs and wireless service providers will exempt their own services from counting against the caps on their customers’ data usage.

For example, if a wireless provider wants to steer customers toward using its own video streaming service instead of Netflix, it would allow customers to watch its service and stream limitless data, while making sure that use of the rival service is subject to monthly caps and costly overage charges. This is anti-consumer, anti-competitive, and honestly kind of a dick move by ISPs. With the line between service providers and content services continuing to blur across many fronts, zero rating activities are becoming more and more prevalent in the United States, along with their negative impact on competition and, ultimately, customers.

As I wrote last year, I absolutely oppose the practice of zero rating as an unfair and harmful tactic, and one that demonstrates regulators need to be vigilant in order to keep the spirit of net neutrality intact. Last year, my company, DreamHost, joined an array of prominent industry voices in a letter to the FCC requesting open public hearings on the legality of zero rating practices.

Unfortunately, under its new leadership, the FCC has just ceased all investigations into zero rating practices, sending letters to companies who were previously under investigation and informing them that those examinations have been terminated. The press release that accompanied this decision, along with other statements by FCC chairman Ajit Pai, make it clear that the FCC’s commitment to any tenet of net neutrality that ensures equal treatment of data is questionable at best.

As the coming battle over net neutrality plays out in the FCC, Congress, and the court of public opinion, the truth remains that practices like zero rating and fast lanes must be opposed for the good of consumers and businesses alike, and that we badly need the protections the FCC imposed in its 2015 order. Net neutrality is a cornerstone of the fair and open Internet as we know it and must remain in effect.

Brett Dunst is VP of Corporate Communications at DreamHost, a global web hosting, domain registrar and cloud services provider.

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