NCTA's Powell: Net Neutrality Debate Is Increasingly Irrelevant

Michael Powell, President of NCTA-The Internet & Television Association, told a Cable Congress Dublin event in Ireland Tuesday (March 6) that the network neutrality debate sucks up money, resources and "mindshare," but is increasingly an irrelevant discussion.

What isn't irrelevant, he suggested, is for governments here and abroad to start looking at tech companies/edge providers like Facebook, their size, and power, and the harm they can do to mental health by keeping consumers chasing the dopamine rush of "likes" and "streaks" as a way to glue them to devices.

ISPs have been trying to get the government to start scrutinizing the edge, including by including them in any net neutrality rule legislation that might emerge. But this was arguably Powell's strongest rhetoric aimed at the edge providers that were considered by the previous Democratic FCC as part of the virtuous internet cycle that ISPs threatened. He said they can't duck responsibility for fake news or sex trafficking or teen bullying and the other implications of their power and reach, and should no longer be treated with kid gloves by the government.

Powell talked of the market power of the big edge providers--Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. "They have the size, power and influence of a nation state. Antitrust policy has barely begun to address how to check this power to protect consumers and healthy competition," said, though Europe is "well ahead of the United States," he added.

Powell, who as FCC chairman helped offer up the basic internet freedom principles that underpin that argument, said that no matter how the net neutrality debate is resolved, if it ever is, there would be little real-world impact, chiefly because he said the internet was and would remain free and open.

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He called the net neutrality debate "mindless trench warfare" and that like the First World War, Democratic and activist cries that the battle was a War to end all Wars would prove wrong. "Net neutrality policy does not remotely address the issues companies and consumers are facing today and likely will face in the future," he said. "Put simply, net neutrality is deeply rooted in engineering, consumer expectations, corporate business models and the norms of internet activity. It is firmly entrenched, and I don’t believe the open internet experience will change, whatever the outcome of the current debate."

Powell told his audience that the principal problems with the rules against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization that the FCC has voted to eliminate, were that they were industrial-era regs aimed at disappearing landline network and that, more specifically, they were the wrong technology (telecom-targeted regs for an internet net), worked too slowly and only applied to carriers, not the edge.

Powell said the net neutrality debate was, at best, about the status quo, and at worst about the past.

Powell argued for an international approach to a global Web:

"U.S. policymakers and regulators around the world need to pivot and focus collectively on how to craft a contemporary regulatory framework that nurtures healthy internet growth and addresses the growing list of concerns that truly impact our citizens," he said.

Among the key issues that need addressing: privacy, technology "addiction" in which tech companies come up with ways to "glue us" to their devices keeping them chasing the "dopamine rush" of Facebook likes and Snapchat streaks. He suggested government needed to start looking at the persuasive research showing harm to mental health.

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Other issues were fake news and foreign manipulation of elections, cybersecurity, and the market power of the edge.

Powell, a former government antitrust attorney, had plenty to say about that market power.

"Our governmental authorities need to get a handle on what kind of market power and harm flow from companies that have an unassailable hold on large pools of big data, which serve as barriers to entry, allowing them to dominate industries throughout the economy," he said.

ISPs have long argued that the government disproportionately targeted them as bad actors, while maintaining the garage innovator veneer on those nation state-sized edge providers.

"For years, big tech companies have been extinguishing competitive threats by buying or crushing promising new technologies just as they were emerging," he said. "They dominate their core business, and rarely have to foreclose competition by buying their peers.

Competition policy must scrutinize more rigorously deals that allow dominant platforms to kill competitive technologies in the cradle."

And Powell wasn’t finished with the edge players just yet.

"We have reached a point where governments can no longer coddle and cater to tech companies," he said. "They have become too large, too influential and too indispensable to live above regulatory scrutiny. As a start, we need to reject the “do no evil” fairytale.

“These companies must be brought back down to earth and regulators must recognize them for what they are: profit-maximizing corporations, that have a strong incentive and ability to pursue their own self-interest over the interests of society and consumers.

"Second, governments must abandon the idea promoted by tech companies that they bear no responsibility for the platforms they create and the activity that takes place there. They are the only ones in a position to address questions of foreign interference in elections, criminal activity such as sex trafficking, and teen bullying or addiction. These companies have earned their supremacy, but now have essential obligations to society to address the implications of their products.

“Third, privacy has become a very serious issue. These companies have powerful corporate incentives to ignore or discount privacy concerns. Learning everything about us is how they built empires. Only robust regulatory oversight from the outside will be effective in protecting consumers.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.