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Net Neutrality: The Long View


We're going to take a few minutes now to consider what's likely to be another important moment in the ongoing debate over Internet regulation. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai released a proposal to dismantle a series of regulations aimed at insuring something called net neutrality. That's the idea that all content on the Internet should remain equally accessible, that Internet service providers should not be able to choose which websites load faster than others or even block certain sites. The move represents a major policy reversal since the passage of landmark rules enacted by the FCC in 2015. FCC chairman Ajit Pai spoke with NPR about the proposal.

AJIT PAI: The Internet wasn't broken in 2015 when these heavy handed regulations were adopted. And once we remove them, I think we'll continue to see the infrastructure investment that will benefit digital consumers and entrepreneurs alike.

MARTIN: Later, Pai's predecessor, Tom Wheeler, also gave his response to NPR.

TOM WHEELER: The Internet was indeed broken before the 2015 rules were put in place because the companies were blocking content. They were throttling content. And they even went to court to tell the court under oath that they intended to have fast lanes and slow lanes so that consumers would have to pay more.

TIM WU: Yeah, I have a slightly different take than either of them.

MARTIN: That's Tim Wu. He is a writer and law professor at Columbia University, and he's credited with coining the term net neutrality in 2003. So we reached out to him for a longer view on this latest twist in the debate over the future of the Internet.

WU: What I'm concerned about is Pai's new rules allow blocking, you know, as long as they disclose of anything. So, you know, Netflix could have been blocked in the cradle. You know, Skype could have been blocked. Even Google could have been slow-laned. You know, this is a really radical change. It's much bigger than their debate over 2015. Pai's proposal is really radical. It is kind of shocking.

It takes it into a completely different direction, almost more like the Chinese Internet, where in China, the state decides which sites are allowed to be shown to users or not. And so, you know, Google and Facebook are just blocked. You know, in theory, carriers could now do that. It is such a total overhaul of what the Internet could do. It goes way beyond what Bush administration ever thought of. And so yeah, it's quite a massive change. And I think it goes back to the basic question of whether we have an open Internet or not.

MARTIN: His argument is that this will allow, you know, yet more innovation to take place. And your answer to that is what?

WU: His argument is that the cable and phone companies aren't making enough money, but I think they've, you know, been making plenty. Their profit margins are over 95 percent. You know, he's saying they don't have enough incentive to invest. But, I mean, they've invested billions under the old regime, under net neutrality.

So I think it's really just a big giveaway to the cable and phone companies and one that I think really breaks something that's been pretty good. So I profoundly disagree with that. I think the track record of the open Internet is unsurpassed both for innovation in speech and innovation in technology. So, you know, fundamentally changing that is a big mistake.

MARTIN: Why do you think that we're still arguing about this? Why do you think that this is still a matter of debate?

WU: You know, I think it really touches on fundamental questions even as to what kind of society we live in and how much private power we're willing to tolerate. The fact is that the owners of broadband connections to the home have an enormous amount of potential power. And, you know, maybe they'll behave themselves. They have some financial reasons. They don't have competitive reasons, as many of them are unrestricted monopolies.

So it really raises the question of private power in our times. And it also asks like, well, what do we want the Internet to be? Is it still this kind of vaulted network of opportunity, the place that you go to get your start from your garage door, or is it increasingly owned, corporatized, private network where what you get is what, you know, Comcast or AT&T thinks is good for you? These are fundamental questions that I think might never go away.

MARTIN: That was Tim Wu. He is a law professor at Columbia University, a contributing op-ed writer to The New York Times. And he's credited with coining the term net neutrality. And I also want to note that NPR's legal counsel has filed comments with the FCC on the net neutrality proposal in opposition to repealing the current rules. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.