Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The FCC Gets the History of ISP Regulation Wrong

Earlier today, I picked apart Ajit Pai’s comments made introducing his proposed repeal of net neutrality rules, but there was one thing I missed. There’s this trope that Pai has repeatedly invoked since taking office:

For almost twenty years, the Internet thrived under the light-touch regulatory approach established by President Clinton and a Republican Congress. This bipartisan framework led the private sector to invest $1.5 trillion building communications networks throughout the United States. And it gave us an Internet economy that became the envy of the world.

It’s a nonsense argument, as Rob Pegoraro pointed out in May in the Washington Post:

But Pai’s history is wrong. The government regulated Internet access under Clinton, just as it did in the last two years of Barack Obama’s term, and it did so into George W. Bush’s first term, too. The phone lines and the connections served over them — without which phone subscribers had no Internet connection — did not operate in the supposedly deregulated paradise Pai mourns.

Without government oversight, phone companies could have prevented dial-up Internet service providers from even connecting to customers. In the 1990s, in fact, FCC regulations more intrusive than the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules led to far more competition among early broadband providers than we have today. But Pai’s nostalgia for the ’90s doesn’t extend to reviving rules that mandated competition — instead, he’s moving to scrap regulations the FCC put in place to protect customers from the telecom conglomerates that now dominate the market.

The landscape of ISPs and the role they play in our lives has dramatically shifted since the mid-’90s. They are more like utilities than ever before, and ought to be regulated as such.

If you’re anything like me, when you’re shopping for broadband, you probably compare four things amongst your different options: speed, monthly allotment, availability, and price. That’s it. Internet service providers are dumb pipe provisioners. An electrical company can’t mandate which appliances you use or what you keep in your fridge; an ISP shouldn’t be allowed to limit your access to certain web services or promote others.