On Dec. 14, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) expects to vote on whether to put an end to net neutrality, a group of regulations that forces internet providers to enable public access to all content or applications. As the issue gains national attention, MiBiz asked David Tarrien, an associate professor at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, about who wins and loses if net neutrality is struck down. Tarrien teaches introduction to law, advanced writing, and research and writing, among other subjects.
What does the public need to know about net neutrality? What is a common question you keep getting from your students?
Part of it is ‘what is it?’ It’s basically regulations that have gone through the Federal Communications Commission that have basically stated that internet service providers cannot block content. They can’t slow content, and they can’t make internet fast lanes (in which) you pay more, you get better service. These regulations went through in 2015. Right now, much of the furor has been created by John Oliver.
What do you mean by that?
Well, he, on his HBO show, has a couple of times talked about this. He is … very much pro net neutrality. They urged their watchers to essentially get in touch with the FCC and say, ‘Don’t block this.’ What is going on currently is that on Dec. 14, the FCC will vote on whether to take away the 2015 rules, and basically allow for internet service providers to have the control, or the freedom, to do the things that are prevented.
What would fundamentally change if net neutrality ends?
Right now, what happens is that since the control is not with internet service providers — with companies like AT&T and Comcast and Verizon — the control to do those things on the internet is really with the content providers. So, while AT&T cannot set any standards about how you receive content, Hulu, for instance, can. Hulu right now can charge you $8 to watch their content with commercials, or charge you, I think, $11 or $12 to watch it without. So, right now the control over internet content is with content providers.
How could ending net neutrality affect costs? What happens to online advertising?
There’s not a solid prediction there. But one of the ways that could go is content providers may rely more heavily on advertising to make up potential higher costs. Because the big fear is that since their power will be diminished, then prices will rise because they’re going to put into their plans a cost hike for their service to make up for the loss of net neutrality. So, they may very well go with advertising. They may take away commercial-free options, or make commercial-free options more expensive than they already are. You may have seen recently that Netflix raised their per year rate. There is some speculation that that was in anticipation of the December 14th ruling.
How do you see the FCC ruling playing out?
It’s extremely likely that the 2015 regulations will be struck down. Net neutrality, as a regulatory enforcement policy, will go away. And also, written into the plan is that enforcement of big business practices on the internet will shift from the Federal Communications Commission to the Federal Trade Commission. The worry there is that the Federal Trade Commission is largely an antitrust body and reacts, rather than pro-acts. They don’t write regulations that control behavior.
What is your outlook for the internet if net neutrality gets struck down?
I think in the short term, probably not a great deal is going to happen, because the worst-case scenarios are really against the business interests of the internet service providers. They know what customers expect, which is more or less quick and relatively free access to the internet. If they make too extreme a change about that immediately, there’ll be a revolt from consumers.
Who, in your opinion, who would suffer most in business if net neutrality is lost? Who would benefit?
The (internet service provider) businesses and their stockholders would immediately benefit because from that perspective, it’s the free hand of the market that’s being allowed to make these choices. The internet service providers and their stock shares would definitely benefit. The losers would be the companies that have the control right now — which would be Netflix and Hulu and Facebook and Amazon — because they’re in control of their own destiny right now, and they would be beholden to much broader controls on their behavior.
As you go forward, what keeps you up at night in regards to net neutrality?
Basically, it is the slow erosion. For consumers to keep being able to access internet — for it to stay at a level that I’m comfortable with paying for and having access to anything I want — is going to require my vigilance. So that, when either Hulu or AT&T raises my rates, I — as any informed consumer should do — inquire as to why. If the ‘why’ doesn’t measure up to anything that I think is valid, (it will require) going forth and talking to government forces to register that I’m unhappy.