The European Union is well known for the overwhelming number of ridiculous regulations that it produces. The EU has banned horse drawn carts on rural roads; set standards on the shape and curvature of bananas; crushed productivity with minimum holidays and maximum work hours; pointlessly set three separate regulations on the loudness of lawn mowers; and subjected hot air balloon enthusiasts to the same regulations and paperwork as commercial airlines. The list goes on.
Yet, when it comes to regulations on broadband Internet, our Federal Communications Commission is out-Europeing Europe. In late September, the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), representing regulators from each member country, formally advised the European Commission not to establish net neutrality regulations. Such rules would dictate how Internet networks are managed. Yet, when it came to the need to establish onerous rules on broadband service providers, the European regulators had this to say:
“BEREC believes that, at present, it would be premature to consider further intervention with respect to net neutrality on an EU level.”
So, what about claims from left-wing media reform groups in the United States, like Free Press and Public Knowledge, that without net neutrality regulations service providers will routinely block access and content, or slow Internet speeds?
“BEREC notes that incidents so far remain few and for the most part have been solved without the need for regulatory intervention.”
So, it appears that any instances were not deliberate or widespread, and consumer actions in a free market can solve whatever problems do exist. But what about claims that service providers will discriminate against consumers by prioritizing some Internet traffic above others? BEREC notes:
“Any electronic communication network needs certain functions to ensure that the network is capable of providing adequate transmission performance . . . These transmission management functions may contribute to improve the experience of all users, and are necessary to deliver high quality services of all types.”
Internet service providers organize data traffic at an instantaneous pace to prevent congestion, increase efficiency, and boost overall speeds for customers. Though treating all data equally sounds pleasant, some services require higher bandwidth and must be prioritized, lest your VoIP phone calls lose quality or a connection altogether. Oddly, the “consumer protection” advocates who favor net neutrality conveniently ignore this anti-consumer side effect.
Britain’s telecommunications regulator, OfCom, has also noted many of these points during its proceeding on net neutrality. A discussion document it published this summer determined that “there is currently insufficient evidence to justify regulation.”
OfCom also found that the so-called “discriminatory” actions can be very beneficial to consumers. Service providers already offer specialized services, such as “paid prioritization,” where businesses pay to ensure high quality service for bandwidth heavy applications, such as video conferencing or e-commerce. OfCom determined that regulations banning such services are “unlikely to lead to efficient market outcomes.” Without these specialized services, OfCom argues, consumers will ultimately bear the cost of ensuring higher quality service — another point pro-regulation consumer groups are suspiciously silent on.
None of these arguments against net neutrality seem to have fazed regulators in the United States, however. In a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, the Federal Communications Commission has proposed reclassifying broadband Internet under 1930s telecom laws just to provide a legal framework for enacting ill-conceived net neutrality regulations. The current proceeding even outlines the many ways FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wants to limit or ban beneficial specialized services.
And if the European Union is viewed as unaccountable and burdensome, the Federal Communications Commission must be its source of inspiration. The Commission is pushing a massive broadband regulatory regime in the face of overwhelming public opposition. A bipartisan majority of over 300 members of Congress is now opposed to the FCC plan. Hundreds of think tanks, minority groups, state legislators, unions, and advocacy groups are calling on the FCC to abandon net neutrality by regulatory fiat. The most recent poll found that 75 percent of Americans think the Internet is “working well” and 55 percent were opposed to regulation.
It is not often that Americans can look to Europe for regulatory leadership. But the pushback net neutrality has received — even from a pro-regulatory European body — is yet another reason the FCC should think twice before acting.
Kelly William Cobb is executive director of Americans for Tax Reform’s Digital Liberty Project.