What is ‘Light Touch’ Regulation?

The new FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai has made several speeches in the last month talking about returning to ‘light-touch regulation’ of the big ISPs. He is opposed to using Title II regulation to regulate ISPs and wants to return to what we had in place before that.

His argument is that the Internet has grown and thrived under the prior way that it was regulated. And he has a point – the Internet has largely been unregulated since its inception. And in many ways the industry has even received preferential regulatory treatment such as the way that Congress has repeatedly exempted broadband services from taxes.

It’s certainly hard to argue with the fact that the Internet has thrived. It’s a little harder to draw the conclusion that light regulation was the cause for this, as the Internet has primarily grown because people love the online content they find there.

But we are now at a different point in the broadband industry than we were when it was in its infancy. Consider the following:

  • The vast majority of homes now have broadband. While the industry is still adding customers there aren’t that many more households that can get broadband that don’t have it.
  • Look back just ten years ago and there was a lot more competition for broadband. In 2007 cable modems and DSL served roughly the same number of customers with similar products in terms of speed. But today cable broadband has become a near-monopoly in most markets.
  • One of the drivers towards implementing net neutrality was the explosive growth of video. Just a few years ago there were many reports of the big ISPs slowing down Netflix and other video traffic. The ISPs were trying to force video providers to pay a premium price to gain access to their networks.
  • While broadband prices have held reasonably stable for a decade, both the cable TV and voice products of the large ISPs are under fire and it’s widely expected that the ISPs will have to start raising broadband rates every year to meet earnings expectations.
  • The ISPs have changed a lot over the last decade and all of the big ones now own content and are no longer just ISPs. This gives them competitive leverage over other competitors.
  • The Internet has become a far more dangerous place for consumers. Hacking and viruses run rampant. And the ISPs and web services like Google and Facebook routinely gather data on consumers for marketing purposes.

I would be the first to agree that hands-off regulation probably contributed to the growth of the Internet. But this is no longer the same industry and it’s hard to think that any of the big ISPs or transport providers need any further protection. These are huge companies with big profits.

It seems to me that the Chairman’s use of the term ‘light-touch regulation’ is code for basically having no regulations at all. And since that was the state of the industry just a few years ago we don’t have to stretch the imagination very far to know what that means.

Before Title II regulation the FCC had almost no power over the big ISPs. The most they could do was to encourage them to do the right thing. Interestingly, in the two or three years leading up to the Title II order it was the threat of coming regulation that kept the ISPs in line more than anything else. The FCC tried to intercede in disputes between the ISPs and video providers and found that they had no leverage on the ISPs. The FCC also didn’t like data caps but they had no power to do anything about them. However, since the ISPs feared price regulation under Title II most of them raised data cap limits to defuse the public outcry over the issue.

So my recollection of the past five years is that it was the threat of coming regulation that kept the big ISPs in line. Because at the end of the day a big ISP could challenge the FCC on broadband issues in court and win every time. So the FCC’s best way to influence the ISPs was to hold the threat of regulation over their heads.

If we go back to that same regulatory place (which is what would happen if Title II is reversed) then there will no longer be any leverage at the FCC. ISPs will be free to do almost anything they want in the broadband arena. The FCC has already let them off the hook for consumer privacy, and that is just the beginning.

You can expect without regulation that the ISPs will do all of those things that net neutrality was supposed to protect against. They all say today that will never happen, and that they believe in the core tenets of net neutrality. But I think we all know that is public relations talk and that the big ISPs will pursue anything that will make them money. That means discriminating against traffic and demanding payments from video providers to get unimpeded broadcasts. It means the ISPs favoring their own content over content of others. And it means a return of price caps and broadband price increases with no fear of FCC intervention. I have a hard time thinking that ‘light-touch’ means anything other than ‘no-touch.’

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