Like the UK's looming withdrawal from the European Union (EU), and the mechanics of Donald Trump's daft hair, net neutrality in the US seems likely to be a talking point for years. And as with Brexit and the Trumpian rug, the debate may ultimately resolve little.
Brexit will happen but without delivering the "freedom" from EU rules its supporters crave. Trump's much-photographed comb-over will continue to perplex, despite Michael Wolff's "revelations." Net neutrality, or its abolition, will not make the behemoths of telecom and the Internet any less dominant or more powerful than they already are. Silicon Valley's technology giants will extend their empires and influence over our daily lives, but not because of any net neutrality moves. (See Net Neutrality Is Not a Rational Debate.)
The issue continues to arouse much stronger feelings in the US than in Europe, though. Placards decrying the abolitionists have become a familiar sight outside the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) building in Washington, DC. Reuters on Tuesday reported on the latest legislative developments: 21 state attorneys filing a petition to challenge the FCC's anti-net-neutrality moves.
Earlier this week, Democrats also said they had secured the backing of 50 senators in the 100-person chamber for a repeal (the machinations are well explained in this news analysis from Mari Silbey). Net neutrality rarely grabs such headlines in Europe, whose politicians are as enthusiastically pro as the FCC is purposefully against.
That leaves Europe's net neutrality supporters with little cause for protest, of course. But the contrasting positions of the US and Europe are counter-intuitive, to say the least. Basic broadband competition is non-existent across swathes of the US, due partly to regulatory shortcomings. Most European countries are awash with broadband retailers, even if there is concern about the lack of "gigabit" offerings. Attempts to block, discriminate against (note the emotive language) or charge more for content are much likelier in markets with few, or even zero, broadband alternatives.
Curiously, Europe's broadband buzz partly explains why Netflix, which has recently trumpeted its support for net neutrality, may be on a more precarious footing there -- as it slowly ratchets up its prices -- than in the US. In its domestic market, there is a clear gulf between a monthly Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX) subscription of around $10 and a cable deal of around $100. In Europe, where the competitive bundling of broadband, TV and mobile services is relatively commonplace, the differential is less obvious. As it further diminishes, so may the incentive to plump for Netflix over the "cord."
This situation would not change were European regulators to sour on net neutrality. But if anywhere does need that protection, it is surely not Europe but the US.
In the short term, however, the US might not get it. As Reuters points out, even if Democrats can muster a Senate majority (which seems very possible), a repeal would need support from the House of Representatives, where Republicans are stronger. Trump might also veto it.
But when he loses the 2020 presidential election to Oprah Winfrey, or another TV celebrity turned politician, Democrats may be able to roll back the FCC's Trumpian legislation, just as Republicans have torn up the Obama rulebook. Any fretting by the net neutrality fanatics might, essentially, be over how much damage gets done in the meantime.
What everyone seems to forget, however, is that the Internet thrived for years without net neutrality protections. The regime that FCC boss Ajit Pai wants to dismantle has been a short-lived affair. It dates back less than three years, to when the Obama presidency was growing old. And it was never a clear-cut certainty under Tom Wheeler, Pai's predecessor at the FCC, whose flip-flopping on net neutrality matches that of Theresa May, the UK's prime minister, on Brexit.
The explosion in Internet video traffic since then means net neutrality protections are now more urgently needed, say Pai's opponents. In the absence of real broadband competition, this assertion may hold some truth. As Internet telephony and messaging have undermined traditional voice and SMS services, operators have given up that fight. Indeed, it seems inconceivable that any successful operator would today try blocking WhatsApp or Skype. Video is a different story altogether: It gobbles up valuable megabytes and could be seen as a threat to operators' own content services.
None of that justifies the current hysteria, though. The migration of services to healthier mobile markets, the evolution of networks and the growing telco realization that "walled gardens" are dark and barren environments should guard against the worst Internet abuses. The abused may also have recourse to older competition laws, as in the pre-Wheeler days.
With or without net neutrality protections, the Internet looks set to become a less diverse place as its giants swallow or squeeze out the minnows. Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN), Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Facebook and Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) are destined to grow stronger, nourished by non-technological network effects and consumers' willingness to give away their personal data for free. And while more broadband rivalry would be the ultimate safeguard against any blocking or throttling of Internet services, net neutrality protections would not spur that competition. The obsession with net neutrality is diverting attention from this much bigger issue, with all of its ramifications for customer service.
Whatever the scaremongers say, the alternatives of Wheeler's regime and Pai's do not represent a choice between utopia and Armageddon. And the latter could turn out to be as ephemeral as the former.
— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading