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FCC reinstates net neutrality policies after 6 years

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Net neutrality is back. Did you miss it? Net neutrality was once the biggest controversy about the internet, the principle that broadband providers should not slow down or block users' access to certain websites, nor should they be allowed to speed up access to other websites that pay extra for the privilege. Net neutrality was implemented in 2015, then rescinded under Donald Trump's presidency. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission voted to again make net neutrality the law of the land. Gregory Rosston is a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and a former deputy economist at the FCC. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

GREGORY ROSSTON: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: A lot of people who pushed for net neutrality predicted disaster if it was repealed. Did that happen?

ROSSTON: No, it did not happen at all. We have had a variety of different innovations in the internet with net neutrality and without net neutrality. It's not made a huge difference either way.

SIMON: What happened? What did make a difference?

ROSSTON: So I think what's made a difference - if you think about the internet, we have internet service providers like Comcast and AT&T. We have content providers like Netflix and Google. And we have users like you and me. And we go through the internet service providers to get content. There's been huge innovation in content and huge innovation in broadband service providers. And at times, regulators have come in and gone out of the picture, and they haven't made a huge amount of difference into what you and I experience as users. What we experience as users is much more generated by new things like having Netflix or Zoom calls.

SIMON: Why didn't the internet service providers take advantage of the suspension of internet neutrality?

ROSSTON: I think because they have a business of selling service to you and me, and they want us to be able to buy higher-speed broadband service so that we can see things like Netflix. And if they tried to take advantage of it to promote their own stuff and degrade Netflix, you and I might suspend our high speed and buy slower-speed service. And they also may be worried that if they did take advantage of the lack of regulation, that they may face stricter regulation.

SIMON: I also want to be clear on something. When a cable company sells a customer a package with faster internet speed for more money than a slower-speed package, that's not against net neutrality, is it?

ROSSTON: No, that's not. The concern with the - some of the net neutrality advocates is they don't want the content providers to be able to buy priority access and have others who don't buy priority access not have as high a speed.

SIMON: There's an example that net neutrality advocates often mentioned, and that's for a while, people who used AT&T for internet service could watch some streaming services without it counting toward their data cap. As far as you're concerned, was that a problem?

ROSSTON: So as an economist, that problem would only be a problem if AT&T could leverage its market power in broadband into disadvantaging other video programmers, and it's pretty clear that AT&T did not do that and could not do that. You know, it's good for consumers to get free stuff. You need to worry about it when the broadband provider has limited to no competition and a high probability of getting into the other part of the business.

SIMON: Professor Rosston, what conclusions do you draw as a public policy expert because there were predictions of disaster which didn't quite apparently develop? At the same time, internet service providers were probably wrong in saying that repeal was essential to keep the internet going.

ROSSTON: I agree. I think that net neutrality may be one of the most overhyped regulations on both sides. The people say that without net neutrality, we're going to have doom and gloom, and the internet service providers say, you don't need net neutrality 'cause we're not going to do any of this bad stuff. Both of them, I think, have been overstating the case. The key for the internet service providers, I think, is they're worried about rate regulation. The FCC has been very explicit saying, we currently are going to forbear from rate regulation, but the internet service providers are worried about that.

SIMON: Gregory Rosston is the Gordon Cain senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research at Stanford. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

ROSSTON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.