BREAKING NEWS
Politics
Consumer Confidential With David Lazarus
Column

Trump administration, in a gift to telecom firms, is pulling the plug on net neutrality

Black Friday is still a couple of days away, but the Trump administration already has handed out gifts to the telecom industry.

The Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday took the wraps off its rollback of net neutrality rules, which it will finalize next month and give internet service providers more control over what you see online.

The FCC also passed a new rule on robocalls, which sounds like a good thing for consumers but probably isn’t.

Net neutrality is the sort of high-tech, policy-wonk issue that may cause people’s eyes to glaze over, but it’s really important for internet users.

At its heart, net neutrality is about guaranteeing a level playing field for all online services and content providers. It ensures that broadband providers such as phone and cable companies can’t give preferential treatment to anyone — their own streaming-video service, say, over Netflix or Amazon Prime Video.

The Obama administration saw such favoritism as a big enough threat that it passed regulations in 2015 prohibiting internet service companies from interfering with the content flowing over their networks.

Now President Trump’s appointee as FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, is proposing to gut those rules, which he said have “depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation."

His stance on net neutrality is expected to be backed by the commission’s Republican majority at a Dec. 14 meeting.

Pai said this week it was a mistake for the Obama administration to impose “heavy-handed, utility-style regulations upon the internet.” He uses that phrase a lot — “heavy-handed” — as if the government has no business telling huge telecom companies what to do.

This, just days after the Justice Department sued AT&T over that company’s planned takeover of Time Warner, arguing that the deal would be bad for consumers.

Under the FCC’s plan, Pai said, “the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet” and will “simply require internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them.”

Because, as you know, there are so many different broadband providers competing for your business. (Sarcasm alert.)

Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn called Pai’s rule change “a cornucopia full of rotten fruit, stale grains and wilted flowers topped off with a plate full of burnt turkey.”

She said the so-called Restoring Internet Freedom Order “would dismantle net neutrality as we know it by giving the green light to our nation’s largest broadband providers to engage in anti-consumer practices, including blocking, slowing down traffic, and paid prioritization of online applications and services.”

Take a look around and you’ll see why Team Trump has this all wrong.

Cable giant Comcast owns NBCUniversal’s movies and TV shows, and in September it launched a streaming-video service called Xfinity Instant TV that features a variety of cable channels.

Under current rules, Comcast couldn’t provide more reliable access to its own service or slow down rival streaming signals from the likes of Sling TV. There are no broadband fast lanes.

After Pai’s rule change takes effect, however, there would be nothing to stop Comcast from fiddling with your feed, making the prospect of broadband fast lanes — and deliberate traffic jams — very much a reality.

Comcast could demand that companies like Netflix pay extra for more reliable signals. It could also charge its own subscribers more for fast-lane access to content.

The telecom industry welcomed Pai’s rule change — although it made no commitment to actually invest in better networks.

Cinnamon Rogers, vice president of government affairs for the Telecommunications Industry Assn., said ditching net neutrality “will improve the business case for deploying next-generation wireline and wireless broadband to meet growing consumer demand for connectivity.”

Improve the business case? There’s a call to arms for you.

Harold Feld, senior vice president of the advocacy group Public Knowledge, said the repeal of net neutrality will leave internet users “completely unprotected by the FCC.”

He said the change has “more to do with gouging consumers and crushing competition than with providing new services.”

As for robocalls, consumers might think at first that the FCC finally has their back.

The commission gave its explicit blessing to phone companies blocking robocalls before they can reach customers’ landlines or mobile phones. This is important because the companies argued in the past that federal rules prevented them from blocking calls.

“Robocalls and telemarketing calls are consistently the top source of consumer complaints received by the FCC,” the commission said, estimating that U.S. consumers receive about 2.4 billion robocalls every month.

Here’s the catch: Along with giving phone companies the go-ahead to block calls, the FCC told them they can pass along to customers any costs incurred in stopping robocalls.

In other words, it’s virtually guaranteed that if your phone company cracks down on robocalls, you’ll see yet another fee on your bill. Or robocall filtering will be offered as an add-on service, like call waiting.

So the problem is being addressed.

But, like better broadband access, it’ll cost you.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
51°