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'Washington Post' Gives Senate Dems 3 Pinocchios for Net Neutrality Warning

The Washington Post's "Fact Check" has given Senate Democrats three Pinocchios ("significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions") for their claim that the FCC's rollback of net-neutrality rules would slow down the Internet.

Senate Republicans backing the rollback were quick to circulate the March 5 column to reporters. But there was a caveat that the Post's rating could change depending on the future conduct of ISPs.

The Post vetted the following Feb. 27 tweet by "U.S. Senate Democrats":
















— Senate Democrats (@SenateDems) February 27, 2018

The tweet employs paragraph breaks after every word to suggest the slowing of the internet under the FCC's new Restoring Internet Freedom order. It is sort of the typographical equivalent of the endlessly buffering symbols websites used to scare comsumers during pro-net neutrality protests.

Senate Democrats have been trying to push through a Congressional Review Act resolution to nullify the Dec. 14 order, which has yet to go into effect, warning of the dire consequences of eliminating the regs against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization.

In the March 5 edition of the paper's "Fact Check" column, under the heading "Will the FCC’s net neutrality repeal grind the Internet to a halt?," the Post's answer was that, after talking with a lot of folks -- from the FCC and ISPs to activists and others -- the warning seemed overblown, but that assessment could change.

"The debate over net neutrality is reshaping the Internet and raising big-picture questions about modern life. But we can’t help but feel that we’ve spilled a lot of pixels here analyzing something that simply hasn’t happened," the "Fact Check" column said, echoing ISPs' argument that the criticisms are over conduct they have no plans to undertake and in some cases have made enforceable pledges not to do so. The big exception is paid prioritization, something the Post deals with in its extensive review of the Democrats' claim that an internet slowdown is inevitable without the rules.

"Senate Democrats, industry leaders and net neutrality activists say the FCC’s move to toss out the Obama-era rules will bog down and end the Internet as we know it," said the paper. "The biggest broadband providers forcefully reject this claim, saying they have no plans to block or throttle content or offer paid prioritization."

Actually, most ISPs have said they would not engage in anticompetitive paid prioritization, while leaving the door open for consumer-friendly business models that help differentiate their services from competitors--critics say they don't have sufficient competitors so that consumers would have a choice other than paid prioritization if ISPs decide to engage in it.

The Post recognized that as well, and the possibilities for consumer-unfriendliness.

"That could change in time," the Post said. "As the D.C. Circuit said, broadband companies could make more money from paid prioritization, and it’s 'common sense' to think they might try it. These providers have the ability and the incentive to slow down or speed up Internet traffic, and they’ve engaged in these practices in the past.

"For now, though, there’s scant evidence that Internet users should brace for a slowdown," the paper added. "Yet the Democrats’ tweet conveys the false impression that a slowdown is imminent unless net neutrality rules are restored. This transmission error merits Three Pinocchios, but we will monitor the situation and update our ruling depending on whether the fears were overstated or came true."

John Eggerton
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.