Ajit Pai, new Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, just unveiled a plan to allow internet providers far more control over how the internet is used. The proposal would signal the end of the current policy, known as "Net Neutrality" which enables equal access to the internet for not just all consumers but all companies.

As a technology industry person, I am highly in favor of net neutrality; without it, internet providers can jack up prices on consumers, slow access to preferred content if they don't produce it themselves and charge you for it (yes, that's your Netflix account we are talking about) and overall control your internet experience. It gets to the heart of the question of whether the internet is a utility - like landline telephones used to be - or a luxurious amenity - like cable is today.

The move is also curious in two other ways. First, its not at all clear why Net Neutrality should be political. There is certainly a "big corporation versus consumers" element to this, yes, but its even more so a "big corporation vs big corporation battle." Technology heavyweights like Facebook and Microsoft heavily favor Net Neutrality, while AT&T and other providers want control. Since both have effective lobbying apparatus,' it's not clear how the issue became political, other than that Pai himself is a former Verizon executive and longtime net neutrality critic. Second, the Justice Department just sued AT&T to block its desired merger with Time Warner citing that it would have too much control over the users' experience, which puts two different government agencies effectively on opposite sides of the net neutrality debate.

So, where do we go from here?

In the short term, despite the momentous announcement, little is likely to change on the ground because Big Tech will almost certainly issue multiple court challenges the moment the ruling is announced. This is absolutely the type of highly controversial, blanket government ruling that a major district or appeals court will quickly stay pending further review by the court system. In short, the FCC will almost certainly have to see through at least one successful defense of the new policy before it takes effect.

The Justice Department's position also complicates the FCC's ruling and implementation. The courts tend to heavily disfavor the government when multiple agencies disagree with one another, and Big Tech will almost certainly cite the Justice Department's very own arguments about excess control and monopolistic treatment of consumers in its briefs against the FCC. That will carry considerable weight, particularly if the case is heard in the West Coast's Ninth Circuit, which is Big Tech's home and favorable to net neutrality.

Furthermore, this is exactly the type of issue that could actually get corrected politically by Congress in 2018. It's not at all clear that the GOP Congress wants to make total enemies of Big Tech, and Net Neutrality is their single largest political concern on the current docket.

So stay tuned: as with much of the past year, this is still much ado about nothing until the first court rulings.

Published on: Nov 29, 2017