Q&A with policy advisor for the ACLU on net neutrality

Apr 3, 2014

Gabe Rottman, legislative council and policy advisor for the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office.
Credit ACLU

In January the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision on the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) “net neutrality” regulations.

The American Civil Liberities Union (ACLU) says one of those rules barred broadband providers from charging web sites (like Netflix or Hulu) extra to get their data to consumers faster. The other prevented providers from blocking users from accessing lawful Internet services, like Skype.

Gabriel Rottman is on the legislative council and policy advisor for the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, focusing on the First Amendment.

I spoke with him regarding the ACLU’s stance on net neutrality, and how the Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision could impact mid-Missouri.

How does net neutrality affect the ACLU?

Well the ACLU is fundamentally concerned about American’s access to information, and that’s from all sources. One of the primary concerns with the D.C.’s Circuit’s decision in Verizon v. FCC, which removed the FCC’s ability to engage in net neutrality regulation is that the viewpoint diversity, access to information and the ability of  Internet customers to have the highest quality of service could be impaired.

What is the ACLU’s stance regarding net neutrality and the D.C. Court of Appeals Decision in January?

So the fundamental issue with net neutrality is that broadband Internet access has become kind of like a utility, very similar to phone service or electricity. For…much like phone service it’s a problem if the provider of phone service is able to discriminate or block what are called edge providers. So individual…companies like Google or Facebook that actually provide the content that you access, if the company that provides you that access is able to slow those edge providers down, or is able to block them, which is especially of concern if it’s a potential competitor like somebody who provides phone service over the Internet, if the consumer isn’t able to vote with their feet and move to a different broadband provider, than the broadband provider is able to exercise a significant amount of market power, which results in poor service, potentially higher prices…and because we’re talking about the provision of information, this raises First Amendment problems.

Why would an Internet provider do that without alienating their customers?

That is exactly the problem. If customers are unable to vote with their feet and move to a different broadband provider, which currently they can’t do because there are only a limited number of broadband providers in the vast majority of markets in the United States, than the broadband provider has no incentives not to discriminate or not to block competing services.

Since the court decision in January, what has happened with net neutrality?

I think everyone is waiting to see what exactly is going to happen. The FCC to its credit moved relatively quickly in addressing the court’s decision, and opening a period where the public is able to comment on what they might be able to do under the court’s decision to potentially protect consumers from problematic behavior by broadband providers. That process is ongoing. All of the groups that have a stake in this issue are in the process of figuring out what they need to say to the FCC, and sort of what they need to ask for. The fundamental request and the best thing that the FCC could do, is reclassify broadband Internet service as what’s known as a common carrier. Again very much like telephone service, and if they were able to do that, which they could do on their own, they don’t need to go to Congress or to the administration to do this, they could just reclassify it they were able to do that, they would be able to ensure that broadband Internet providers cannot discriminate or block content providers.

How does net neutrality affect a community like Columbia, Mo., where to give you some context there is more than 100,000 people, but there only a few main Internet providers?

Right, so Columbia, Mo., is in the same boat as most markets in the United States, where when it comes to high-speed broadband, there only a few options. Now it is getting…there are new entrants to the market. Things like 4G Wireless and even Google Fiber, but in the vast majority of markets like Columbia, there just aren’t that many options. So that provides the economic framework in which the large broadband providers, because they know that the customers are locked in, have both an incentive to charge those who can pay more for faster service, and then also to potentially block or discriminate against competing services or even controversial services, which is a problem specifically for the ACLU as a free speech organization, where we’re concerned that in extreme cases you might have broadband providers blocking content because that content is controversial.

Thank you so much for your time, I appreciate it.

No problem at all, thank you.