Net neutrality debate fails to recognize middle ground

Net neutrality debate fails to recognize middle ground
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The Federal Communications Commission gathered on Sept. 26 in Washington D.C. in hopes of finally settling the net neutrality debate. While there are a host of issues central to this debate — regulatory authority, privacy, transparency, innovation — the question that lies at the heart of net neutrality is fairly simple: Is the internet a public utility with certain carriage obligations on providers of this service?

If it’s a public utility, as it was deemed by the Federal Communications Commission in the 2015 Open Internet Order, then the government is permitted to regulate ISPs to make sure they do not intentionally provide faster internet to companies who can pay more, or slower internet to those who don’t – or can’t.


Since at times these companies could be rivals, this would put ISPs in the role of picking winners or losers among or between companies offering potentially the same services, based on their differing abilities to pay.


If it isn’t a public utility and not regulated as such, however, varying the speeds of internet access for different customers in order to make more money is suddenly “on the table.”

Those against the FCC’s proposed rollback of net neutrality regulations fear that allowing ISPs to control internet speed based on ability-to-pay will lead to an internet tilted in favor of companies with deeper pockets, not necessarily better services. But according to the rollback’s supporters, the current net neutrality regulations put in place by the Obama administration are an egregious overstepping of power on the part of the federal government, and serve to stunt growth and innovation in the industry.

But both sides fail to realize there is a middle ground — one that benefits consumers, but still keeps control from being pushed too far in either direction. It does not have to be either the federal government in control or ISPs. It does not have to be one to the exclusion of the other.

In fact, one could argue that a very workable compromise would be to move back to a regulatory regime — whether through FCC efforts, a narrowly focused legislative solution, or some combination of the two — in essence representing the original rules in the first Open Internet Order (no blocking, no throttling, etc.), but not including the current Title II classification. 

No matter what happens, however, both sides of the debate may fear that the FCC’s upcoming decision could set in motion a pendular swing of the regulatory environment that could be seen initially by many as quite de-regulatory, but come the next change in administration, may swing back to what others might say is over-regulatory. This potential cycle of over-correcting then under-correcting could leave the entire internet ecosystem with far too much uncertainty in the long run. Businesses could either under-invest or over-invest depending on whether they were looking at the long-term or short-term, new products or services, or even entire companies that should be created may not be where there is too much regulation, while practices that are harmful to consumers or particular parts of the ecosystem could spring up when there is a regulatory vacuum.

There should be another way forward, one that codifies the rules everyone agrees on — which again looks to be those rules in the original Open Internet Order but without Title II, and that in this sense balances the concerns of all sides and gives longer-term regulatory certainty. 

This would hopefully result in a more stable regulatory environment protective of both the expectations of consumers, and the needs of applications developers and edge providers, while at the same time being pro-innovation for all involved. 

Unfortunately, it is possible that the only outcome we can be sure of is that the debate will continue.

Doug Sicker is the Department head of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon. He is also the previous chief technology officer at the Department of Commerce and the chief technology officer at the Federal Communications Commission.