The Federal Communications Commission announced plans on Nov. 21 to loosen regulations for internet providers. This would enable the companies to structure service plans that control access to and speed of their internet. On Dec. 14, a Republican bill will be voted on to determine whether the plan will be enacted.
If passed, internet providers such as Comcast and Verizon would be allowed to control the content and speed of certain websites, essentially dismantling President Obama’s plan for a free and open internet, otherwise known as “net neutrality.”
Among the biggest supporters of this plan is Chair of Penn's Board of Trustees David Cohen, who is the executive vice president of Comcast Corporation.
A few hours after the FCC announced plans to roll back net neutrality, Cohen published a blog post on Comcast's website praising the move toward looser regulations. Cohen has always been a major advocate of the rollback of net neutrality, saying in 2014 that neutrality advocates have an “almost hysterical reaction” to the loosening of regulations.
Cohen declined to comment on this article.
While net neutrality regulations were created in order to ensure that all internet traffic flowed equally and certain content wasn’t unfairly slowed down, opponents say that these rules prevent internet service providers from making investments in their networks to provide better, faster online access.
On Penn’s campus, Cohen’s open support of net neutrality has drawn immense criticism, sparking a student protest of the Board of Trustees three years ago.
Professor Emeritus of business economics and public policy Gerald Faulhaber and professor of legal studies and business ethics Kevin Werbach both said that Cohen's anti-net neutrality stance is not a conflict of interest since the matter is not important to Penn as an institution.
Universities that have private internet networks, such as Penn, or that are part of National Research and Education Networks would not be affected by the rule change. Students sending and receiving information on their phones through outside wireless, however, could be impacted.
Some institutions would be affected, since they use commercial internet providers. Inside Higher Ed wrote that under the new plan, colleges and universities could charge students differently based on their amount of internet usage.
"Students today take for granted that the internet is this amazing, open platform to access information," Werbach said. "Network neutrality fundamentally is about control over the way information flows on the internet."
The debate over network neutrality and regulations on internet providers began in the early 2000s, Faulhaber said.
He added that these debates came to a head in 2010 when the FCC, an independent government agency that regulates interstate communications, failed to pass an order that internet providers could not discriminate against websites and had to treat all traffic equally.
In 2015, under the Obama administration, the FCC tried again and succeeded at passing a law regulating internet providers by classifying the internet as a public utility, not unlike electricity, under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.
At the time, Faulhaber was working at the FCC as a chief economist. He said that when the internet became "a highly regulated public utility" in 2015, investment level went down.
Another issue contended by net neutrality advocates is the concept of paid prioritization plans — which Faulhaber said would be a way for internet providers to create a "market" for the internet by offering different speeds similar to first class versus regular mail delivery by the postal service.
One issue advocates of net neutrality worry about in the new plan is the concept that internet providers would have the power to not provide certain content, which internet users would not necessarily be aware they weren't receiving — something that Faulhaber said led to the push for the failed 2010 FCC order.
Faulhaber added that this fear is ultimately baseless since refusing to provide websites would eventually cause internet providers to "lose business" and, if caught, these companies would face national anti-trust laws.
"The proposal by the FCC now to eliminate those rules I think is dangerous," Werbach said, taking the opposite stance from Faulhaber and Cohen on what he calls a "frightening" proposal.
"It's a proposal to strip away all the open internet protections that have been around for some time."
If this new plan is passed, Werbach said, the FCC will be challenged in court to provide legal justification to completely reverse the 2015 regulations that passed just a year-and-a-half ago.
"At the end of the day, there really is a bipartisan consensus in favor of sensible, open internet rules, because this is a fundamental infrastructure for society," Werbach said. "When companies have complete freedom to make these decisions, they make decisions that reflect their own interest rather than protect the freedom of the internet."
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