Commentary

Scrapping Net Neutrality Would Be 'Disaster,' FTC's McSweeny Says

The recent repeal of the broadband privacy rules was bad, but revoking the net neutrality rules would be even worse, according to Federal Trade Commissioner Terrell McSweeny.

"One thing I dearly hope is that we don't rush to now unwind the basic protections that really now protect our economic liberty and the open Internet," McSweeny said today at a panel convened by the Open Technology Institute. "If we do that, we are deeply undermining the status quo that exists today, that I think is driving the innovation in our economy."

McSweeny, who has long been on record as supporting the former privacy rules, called their revocation a "setback" for consumers. Those rules would have required broadband carriers to obtain consumers' opt-in consent before drawing on their Web-browsing history for ad purposes. 

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She added that repealing net neutrality would be "an even bigger disaster for consumers, innovators and entrepreneurs in the long run than the repeal of the broadband privacy rules."

The net neutrality rules, passed in 2015, prohibit broadband carriers from blocking or degrading traffic and from charging higher fees for prioritized delivery.

McSweeny's comments come as Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai reportedly wants to revoke the agency's net neutrality order, but also convince Internet service providers to commit in their terms of service to follow open Internet principles. Under Pai's blueprint, the Federal Trade Commission would police net neutrality by prosecuting carriers that violate promises to abide by the neutrality principles.

McSweeny suggested today that Pai's approach is unworkable for numerous reasons. Among others, the FTC -- unlike the FCC -- lacks expertise in network engineering. Also, broadband carriers may tell Pai now that they'll promise to follow net neutrality rules, but can change their tune in the future.

She also questioned how individual consumers will be able to detect violations of net neutrality, and what recourse companies will have if their traffic is degraded by a broadband carrier.

Additionally, the FTC may not be able to prosecute Internet service providers for violating privacy promises, given that the agency lacks authority over common carriers. "Our jurisdiction is in question, at a minimum," McSweeny said.

Last year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled hat the FTC couldn't bring an enforcement action against AT&T for allegedly duping wireless customers about broadband data -- even though the alleged deception occurred before mobile broadband was classified as a common carrier service.

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