The FCC’s net neutrality plan has one big flaw: it relies on trust

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US FCC chairman Ajit Pai has revealed his finalized net neutrality plan. As expected, the plan calls for scrapping the net neutrality rules put in place in 2015 and replacing them with something considerably more hands-off. Also as expected, net neutrality advocates are absolutely freaking out and lamenting the death of the internet as we know it.

As usual, the “debate” amounts to social media being flooded with a toxic blend of ideology hysterics, most of which fails to address the crucial question: is the new FCC plan better than the plan it’s replacing?

Remember that Pai’s fundamental viewpoint isn’t that net neutrality is a bad thing – it’s that he’d much rather let market forces govern it instead of the government. Pai’s plan is rooted in the conservative ideology that businesses know best and the more freedom you give them, the more they invest and the more everyone benefits from that. (Put another way, it’s kind of like trickle-down economics applied to the internet.)

The FCC plan essentially reflects that ideology – telcos and ISPs are technically free to throttle and block at will, but they must do so transparently. If they don’t, consumers can report them to the Federal Trade Commission. Also, Pai is betting that transparency will prevent telcos and ISPs from engaging in non-neutral behavior because – as poll after poll makes clear – most consumers who have even a rudimentary understanding of the issue do not want it.

So back to the question: is this plan better than the Obama-era rules it is intended to replace?

It’s hard to say. Pai has talked about how the previous rules hurt telecoms investment and punished small ISPs. But the evidence that the net neutrality rules hurt investment is weak, and plenty of small ISPs asked the FCC to keep the current rules in place. So it’s unclear if the new rules would fix those problems (assuming the problems even exist).

Also, a plan that essentially leaves it to market forces to enforce neutrality works better when you have sufficient amounts of competition – something that many markets in the US don’t really have, and with consolidation ongoing in the telco/ISP space, they may soon have even less. If your customers have nowhere else to go – or the effort and cost of switching is painful and clunky – how much power do they really have to keep you from engaging in non-neutral activity?

That’s a key question because the FCC’s new neutrality plan essentially asks consumers to trust service providers to take their sentiments on net neutrality to heart. Most neutrality advocates – at least the louder ones – generally don’t on ideological grounds, and point to particular past incidents of non-neutral shenanigans as justification of that mistrust.

Objectively, those examples don’t add up to the Evil Corporate Internet Takeover that net neutrality activists tend to assume telcos want. (Personally I wouldn’t count things like load balancing, traffic management and zero-rating as violations of net neutrality, provided they’re implemented fairly.) But it does underline the low levels of trust that consumers place in telcos right now. Which means a net neutrality plan that relies on trust as a core tenet ain’t much of a plan.

Granted, the previous plan wasn’t much of a plan either. It mainly worked by classifying ISPs as utilities, which was a clumsy attempt to apply an outdated framework on a different kind of business entirely. That’s gone, and that’s good. But it does mean a return to the old regime that favors telcos over their own customers. The transparency requirement is great – but is it enough? The Pai plan might be more palatable and effective if it was backed up by a legislative framework that balances the rights of service providers and internet customers – but it’s clear that won’t happen with the current Congress.

If the FCC votes in favor of this plan next month (and it seems likely they will), I highly advise US service providers to keep all this clearly in mind. Most consumers want net neutrality, and most of them don’t trust you to honor that – don’t make it worse by proving them right.

Meanwhile, I would strongly advise concerned consumers to take advantage of the transparency requirement. Be vigilant, shine a light on their practices and hold your service provider’s feet to the fire. It might not work, but considering how the customer experience is becoming the main competitive differentiator for CSPs, it’s worth a shot.

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