Has equality cost America innovation? It’s a big question at the heart of the fight over business practices of providing internet service.
This is the net neutrality debate. In 2015, the Obama administration-era Federal Communications Commission changed regulatory lanes and reclassified the internet as a utility, allowing it to put in place rules requiring internet service provides like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to treat all content equally. No “fast lanes” for preferred websites. No “slow lanes” for competitors.
Remember, Verizon owns both AOL and Yahoo. AT&T is trying to buy Time Warner, which owns HBO among others. Comcast already owns NBC. Charter Communications and Sprint reportedly have been exploring a merger. The days of an internet service provider staying in its lane are long gone.
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The FCC proposes to end mandatory neutrality for internet service providers. Supporters, like FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, think it will strengthen competition, unleashing new technologies and services. Opponents worry allowing virtual tollbooths on the internet will lead to higher costs for consumers. The public comment period for the FCC plan is due to close on Wednesday. No communications regulation has garnered so much input — 20 million and counting. Although, this being about the internet, thousands likely have been generated by bots.
A shrunken FCC already approved a proposal to do away with net neutrality. That began the public comment period ending in the week ahead. The commission is back to full strength with all five seats filled. This is the group that will decide if internet traffic should be treated equal.
Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google generate billions of dollars that rely on internet connections. They don’t want to have to spend extra money to ensure an internet service provider doesn’t hold their content back. Those companies we paid for our internet connections, meantime, could be looking at billions of dollars of new fees they could charge for favoritism if neutrality is thrown out.
There is little neutrality on the issue among big, publicly traded companies depending upon the internet.
Financial journalist Tom Hudson hosts “The Sunshine Economy” on WLRN-FM in Miami. Follow him on Twitter @HudsonsView.