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For an issue that provokes such strong partisan support in Washington and competitive rivalry in the tech, media and communications industries, it is remarkably hard to trace the real-world effects of net neutrality.
The arcane rules of network management — how broadband companies handle different types of traffic on their networks — have always been impenetrable to non-engineers. Add in the passions stirred up by grass roots campaigns in Silicon Valley and beyond, the reality has been hard to separate from the ideologically opposed positions.
“It’s a wildly popular topic — it has always generated millions of comments,” says Chris Lewis, vice-president of Public Knowledge, one of the advocacy groups that has pushed for rules they say are needed to make sure the internet remains “open”.
After the latest outpouring, the Federal Communications Commission moved a step closer this week to a decisive action, with a promise to scrap neutrality regulations that were set in 2015. That would free US broadband companies to favour some bits that flow through their networks over others, provided they are open about their practices and do not breach antitrust rules.
More than 22m submissions poured into the agency during a public comment period on the proposal this year. But many, it turns out, were faked.
According to FCC officials, some 7.5m comments came in the same standard letter, sent from just 45,000 email addresses. Most of these were anonymised, having been processed through a website called fakemailgenerator.com.
In response, the FCC said it had disregarded the tidal wave of submissions, both fake and real, and made “quality rather than quantity” its yardstick.
That brought complaints from opponents, who saw this as a convenient way for the agency to disregard a wave of public opposition. Organisations like Public Knowledge have been part of highly successful grassroots campaigns in the past to generate support for neutrality, raising suggestions that the fake comments were designed to neutralise a groundswell of real opposition to the FCC.
Eric Schneiderman, New York’s Democratic attorney-general, appeared to hold the same suspicion this week, complaining that his own attempt to get to the bottom of the issue had been blocked by the Republican-controlled FCC. A spokesman for Mr Schneiderman said the fake comments tended to support the FCC’s position.
Brushing aside the weight of public commentary, the FCC said it had narrowed in on what it considered the real issue: that the neutrality rules, by preventing network companies from charging for different levels of services, had discouraged investment in broadband networks. According to officials, at least one big cable company, Charter, had scrapped a plan for a new wireless network purely because of net neutrality rules.
However, its detailed analysis of the decision, released on Wednesday, provided only slight support for this position. Broadband investment “appears to have declined in 2015”, when neutrality rules were adopted, it said, before falling just 3 per cent the next year.
Officials also said that forcing companies to treat all bits flowing over their networks equally had held back innovation. As one example, they said that data flowing in real time to autonomous vehicles will require greater reliability than movies on Netflix.
According to critics, allowing companies to charge more for different levels of service like this — setting up what critics call “internet fast lanes” — would lead to an inevitable deterioration for anyone not able to pay the toll. And while rich companies like Netflix and Google might not be affected, new internet upstarts would be hampered. Etsy, the website for craft goods that has been one of the strongest opponents of the FCC’s position, summed up the opposition this week: “Strong net neutrality rules are necessary to preserve an even playing field online, democratising entrepreneurship and allowing internet-enabled microbusinesses from nearly every county across the US to thrive.”
The almost theological certainty on both sides, however, is belied by the reaction of Wall Street, which seems to have concluded that the outcome of the net neutrality wars will have little impact on real-world broadband and media markets.
In the past three years, the regulatory climate in Washington has swung between extremes — from a court throwing out FCC-backed neutrality rules, to the imposition of a far more stringent set of regulations, and back to a laissez-faire approach. But in that time, the share prices of cable, telecoms and media companies have barely reacted to this whipsawing.
The Brookings Institution mapped share prices in the sector against regulatory actions, concluding that only the three big cable companies at the time — Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter — were affected by President Barack Obama’s 2014 promise to regulate the sector more stringently. But telecoms companies were unaffected, leading the researchers to suggest that it was worry about a bar on more consolidation in the cable sector, rather than net neutrality rules themselves, that had unnerved investors.
Meanwhile, shares in Netflix, which is often held up as the company most directly at risk from the end of net neutrality, have been on a tear since last year’s presidential election. Netflix agreed to pay Comcast higher traffic costs three years ago. The companies last year buried the hatchet completely, with a deal to make the streaming movie service available directly over Comcast’s set top boxes. Partisan passions aside, that suggests the effects of the FCC’s latest action may be less dramatic than widely expected.
Additional reporting by Barney Jopson in Washington