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Hiawatha Bray | TECH LAB

On Net neutrality, it’s time for Congress to act

The debate over Net neutrality has been a long-running one.
AFP/Getty Images
The debate over Net neutrality has been a long-running one.

The Federal Communications Commission’s hugely controversial moves on network neutrality might work out even better than I’d hoped. That’s because the ferocious backlash against the FCC could finally spur Congress to draw up proper legislation that will at last settle this long-running debate.

Republicans, battered by telephone calls and e-mails from panicky voters, are calling for hearings and legislation to prevent Internet providers like AT&T and Comcast from abusing their power. GOP representatives from Nebraska, Utah, South Carolina, and Washington state have joined the chorus. Colorado GOP Representative Mike Coffman wrote to FCC chairman Ajit Pai, asking him to back off of his plan to scuttle the current Obama-era policy.

Dream on, congressman. The best move for you and your colleagues is to do your jobs and enact a legislative fix that prevents monopolistic abuses, without smothering the Internet in needless bureaucracy.

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Better yet, Congress can finally put this issue to bed. Net neutrality advocates who favor the current approach are learning the hard way that the FCC can change course whenever a new administration comes to town.

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For closure, we need a purpose-built Net neutrality law.

Since 2015, the FCC has regulated Internet carriers like public utilities, using the 1934 law drawn up to oversee phone companies. On paper, this means the feds can oversee and override every major decision the companies make.

The Obama-era FCC vowed to exercise this power sparingly, but there’s always the next election.

Besides, when similar regulations were applied to the nation’s telephone carriers, we got decades of technological stagnation.

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Dumping the current approach makes sense, but it leaves broadband carriers free to attempt some unwelcome new policies. Many critics warn that they might start blocking our access to certain Internet services, or slow them down so they’re hard to reach.

This threat strikes me as trivial. Perhaps Comcast or AT&T might generate a bit more profit by preventing their customers from watching YouTube or listening to Spotify. But they would generate massive public outrage, bipartisan anger in Congress, a probable lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission, and even a few contemptuous messages from America’s tweeter-in-chief.

It’s such a bad idea, I doubt you’d need a law to prevent such an action. But let’s play it safe and pass a law anyway.

Two Republicans tried to do that in 2015, and suddenly they’ve got a lot of company.

The other major concern raised by Net neutrality advocates is the more complicated problem of “paid prioritization” and its close cousin, “zero rating.”

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In paid prioritization, companies pay the Internet carriers something extra to get better access to the network.

With zero rating, users of mobile Internet devices can get unlimited access to certain online services, without touching their monthly data-usage quota.

Many Net neutrality activists want to ban both these practices, and some Republican members of Congress want a ban on paid prioritization.

I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

For 20 years, content-delivery networks like Akamai Technologies have provided higher-priority Internet access for a price, so why shouldn’t AT&T or Comcast?

As long as companies are forbidden from actively slowing down Internet services that don’t pay extra for superior service, I don’t see a problem.

I also like the idea of zero rating, which is already popular with millions of consumers. The cellular company T-Mobile made the concept famous by letting its customers stream video and audio without counting it against their data caps.

But paid prioritization and zero rating can be abused.

Consider AT&T, which owns a cellular network as well as the DirecTV satellite TV service. AT&T cellular users who also subscribe to DirecTV can view all their shows on their phones without using any data. It’s a perfect example of zero rating, and a nice little perk for customers.

But what if those same customers want to watch a different streaming video service?

Now they must pay for the bits. Clearly, this puts DirecTV rivals like Netflix at a significant disadvantage. But AT&T has the answer. It will offer data-free streaming of any other video services, too, but only if those companies pay AT&T for the privilege. That’s paid prioritization. The problem here is that AT&T can charge whatever it likes to rival video providers, while giving its own service a free ride.

The FCC was investigating this AT&T policy at the end of the Obama presidency, and with good reason. Any future Net neutrality law should address the matter, perhaps by requiring that zero rating plans like AT&T’s be accessible to all content providers, on equal terms. Want to give away DirecTV? You’d better give away Netflix as well, or else.

I recently predicted that not much would happen when the FCC overturns the current rules. But I might have been wrong. Something’s happening in Washington — the first hopeful signs that Congress will do its job, and resolve the Net neutrality debate, once and for all.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.