Ajit Pai’s three-year delayed debut at CES as Federal Communications Commission chair last week was a friendly, and at times lighthearted, conversation with Gary Shapiro, the CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, which produces the show. Pai used the opportunity to float what he seems to thinks are consensus network neutrality rules. What he’s really proposing is to cement major ISPs and mobile carriers’ monopoly model business plans into federal law.
Shapiro led off by asking Pai about the FCC’s decision to scrap network neutrality rules two years ago. Pai endorsed net neutrality legislation. But of a sort…
Let’s focus on the things that we can actually agree on, those core principles of an open internet that we all agree upon – no blocking, no throttling, no anticompetitive conduct, transparency – I’ve just described in five seconds a bill that should sail through congress, but this has become more of a political issue than a policy one.
He left a couple of items off the list, at least the list that net neutrality advocates keep: paid prioritisation and zero rating. Those are two related practices that big, monopoly model Internet service providers – AT&T and Comcast, for example – and mobile carriers dearly want to hold onto.
When an ISP zero rates particular content, it doesn’t count the bytes consumed against a user’s monthly data cap. Paid prioritisation happens when an ISP creates a fast lane for content it owns – say, AT&T sending you Road Runner cartoons that it owns faster than Disney movies that it doesn’t – or charges the owner a fee for the same treatment.
Both practices create a hierarchy of content, as a result of an ISP’s ability to manipulate data streams to suit its bottom line. There’s not a meaningful difference between deliberately speeding some content up, versus deliberately slowing – throttling – other content down. Limiting legislation to a carefully wordsmithed consensus allows telcos and cable companies to write U.S. telecoms policy, and lock in privileges for decades to come.