In December 2017, under the Trump administration, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission) repealed its 2015 network neutrality rules and abdicated its role to protect consumers and competition in the broadband market. This widely criticized decision, coupled with the enormous and growing power of online platform companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet’s Google, raised serious concerns about the future of a free, open, and universally accessible and affordable Internet ecosystem that promotes choice, innovation, privacy, and user control.
In the absence of net neutrality rules, broadband Internet access service (BIAS) providers like Comcast, AT&T, and Charter will be able to block, throttle, or otherwise discriminate against, or favor, certain Internet traffic. By blithely tossing aside its strongest legal authority to protect consumers and competition in the broadband market, the FCC has ensured that this already consolidated market will only become more so. Meanwhile, the vibrant online platform market, which only a decade ago saw great investment and competition in social networks, search capability, and e-commerce, has itself become dangerously consolidated both horizontally and vertically. This has left consumers little choice other than to rely upon—and give their personal information to—a handful of large online gatekeepers. The danger of online platforms with huge troves of personal data crystalized with the revelation that the data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, improperly obtained access to the personal information of tens of millions of Facebook users.
This paper sets out policy prescriptions intended to start a conversation about how to shape an Internet ecosystem that will serve the public interest. Inside-the-Beltway policymakers tend to focus on broadband conduits and online platforms separately. Yet, they are equally important to an open Internet. Policymakers, however, should be wary of calls for “regulatory parity,”that is, regulating broadband providers and online platforms exactly alike. These industries serve very different roles in the Internet ecosystem, have different relationships with consumers, and as discussed below, the problems that affect these industries are, for the most part, very different.