The recent Internet Day of Action for net neutrality illustrates how intensely consumers feel about net neutrality protections, as more than 50,000 people, websites, and organizations demonstrated in favor of a free and open internet. Many Internet Service Providers claim that they, too, want net neutrality, but with one exception: they don’t want any rules that can be enforced against them. Asking giant internet providers like Comcast to behave is, quite frankly, implausible given their history of anti-competitive behavior.
Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is moving quickly to repeal the 2015 net neutrality rules put in place by the Commission and the previous Chairman. Part of Chairman Pai’s proposal for replacing the rules includes asking broadband providers to pledge to uphold net neutrality through “voluntary commitments.” Although advocates of Chairman Pai’s proposal to replace net neutrality enforcement with “voluntary commitments” argue that these commitments are “binding,” these policies are often dubious and shifting, providing internet service providers with flexibility to update and reconfigure the terms at any moment. Moreover, the likelihood of obtaining voluntary consensus without federal regulations incentivizing cable and internet providers is slim. Their history shows, unfortunately, that ISPs do not honor their voluntary commitments.
Big Cable’s #DitchTheBox proposal is one of the most recent examples of an industry’s inability to self-regulate in the absence of federal regulation, and many of the same companies offering pay-TV services are the same companies providing broadband internet. Big Cable developed the #DitchTheBox plan as an alternative to the FCC’s #UnlockTheBox proposal. The FCC’s #UnlockTheBox proposal would have allowed third-party manufacturers to create their own cable set-top box, saving consumers an estimated $231 dollars a year. For years the cable and satellite TV industry fought to prevent TV customers from switching to online providers like Netflix and Hulu, so the FCC’s war to liberate consumers’ cable boxes was met with Big Cable’s #DitchTheBox retaliation. This plan simply served to mislead viewers and regulators into trusting that cable companies would provide consumers with free apps to watch TV rather than making them pay monthly fees for cable boxes.
Ironically, Chairman Pai’s rationale behind his net neutrality agenda is undermined by the dissent he authored during the #UnlockTheBox proceedings. In his dissent, Chairman Pai argues that unlocking the box “would be harder, not easier to reach [a] consensus” of standards that all ISPs would conform to. Part of the proposal required providers like Comcast, Charter Communications, and Dish Network to provide a format for the set-top box that would conform to agreed-upon specifications to allow third parties to create and sell their own set-top boxes to consumers, instead of a format that would only work with a set-top box rented from the provider. Chairman Pai believed that these ISPs could not come to terms with what specification they would adhere to.
After President Trump’s election win, the newly appointed FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, promptly dropped the #UnlockTheBox proposal from further consideration, granting Big Cable autonomy over its bogus self-regulatory mechanism. As you might expect, the cable industry's counter-plan never actually materialized. Without the threat of federal regulation, Big Cable has little incentive to fulfill its promise to consumers. It wasn’t until this year that Comcast launched an app for Roku media players and Roku-enabled TVs. This sounded great on the surface, but contrary to its promise of providing free apps to customers, Comcast began charging customers that use Roku an additional $7.95 every month — and that’s to use equipment Comcast doesn’t even own.
It’s clear that customers continue to pay for Big Cable’s broken promises while Big Cable advances its dominance in the video marketplace. It seems that once the FCC dropped the #UnlockTheBox proposal, Big Cable abandoned its impetus for giving consumers the ability to choose how, when, and on what device they watch the cable TV content they’ve paid for.
Big Cable’s past history of discrediting its own promises via its behavior epitomizes why it cannot be left to self-regulate. Big Cable said it would do one thing for consumers when faced with federal regulation, then did nothing when that threat evaporated. Replacing the FCC’s net neutrality rules with a voluntary system where broadband providers dictate their own rules (or lack of them) will likely result in the same scenario. In the end, we’d be exchanging strong, court-tested net neutrality rules with a series of ISP-designed loopholes that would serve as a catalyst for market abuse — and more consumer ripoffs.