The following editorial appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune:
IT wasn't broke, so why "fix" it? That's how Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, the University of Chicago-trained lawyer who is a passionate apostle of free-market capitalism, frames his push to repeal "net neutrality" rules for internet service providers (ISPs) adopted by the FCC in 2015. The rules ensure that ISPs can't arbitrarily decide which websites load faster or slower, nor can they impose a surcharge allowing websites to load faster.
"President Clinton got it right in 1996 when he established a free market-based approach to this new thing called the internet," Pai told NPR. "We saw companies like Facebook and Amazon and Google become global powerhouses precisely because we had light-touch rules."
Pai was appointed chairman of the FCC by President Donald Trump in January after serving as an FCC commissioner since 2012. He appears to have the votes to repeal net neutrality and replace it with his Restoring Internet Freedom Order plan, under which ISPs could charge websites and applications extra for faster loading, so long as they disclosed what they were doing. Pai's plan would also move the authority to handle enforcement of proper ISP behavior back to the Federal Trade Commission, where it resided until 2015.
But there is a fundamental problem with Pai's argument. Yes, it's true that the free market and a lack of regulation did allow the internet to flourish. But 2017 isn't like 1997 or even 2007. Instead of being an anything-goes Wild West, internet service is increasingly monopolistic.
In 2015, the fact that 55 percent of consumers had only one option for high-speed internet to download movies and music was the most powerful argument for net neutrality.
Two years later, Americans are more reliant than ever on high-speed streaming -- and ISPs are not just getting more involved in creating content, they are beginning to become dominant sources.
Comcast -- the nation's largest provider of broadband service -- owns NBCUniversal, which churns out TV series and movies and also owns MSNBC, CNBC, the Golf Channel, E! and USA Network.
Comcast rival AT&T is seeking to buy Time Warner and get hold of its vast TV and film production assets as well as its CNN, TNT, TBS and Cartoon Network cable channels. While the Trump administration opposes and may be able to block the AT&T purchase, the trend of broadband providers seeking to own the content they stream is sure to continue.
That this creates immense, inherent conflicts of interest doesn't bother Pai. But it should bother anyone who values Americans' reliable, guaranteed, consistent access to the internet. That's especially so given Comcast's history of unethical behavior. In 2008, it was rebuked by the FCC for blocking and impeding internet access for customers using the BitTorrent file-sharing service -- and for lying about its interference until it became undeniable.
Pai has defenders among economists like Tyler Cowen who don't believe scrapping net neutrality will lead to "nightmare or dystopian scenarios." But it's difficult to see Comcast's past behavior and expect good things to happen in the parts of the nation in which Comcast is the only high-speed broadband option for millions of customers -- and the company can put its thumb on the scale to help or hurt select websites or apps. This is not a corporation that can automatically be trusted to do the right thing under the "light-touch rules" that Pai touts.
With society's reliance on digital data (telemedicine, anyone?), the internet has become a core utility akin to water or electricity. Americans wouldn't tolerate a water grid or power grid that played favorites. It would be a dangerous gamble for the FCC to do so with internet service.