Yesterday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced his intention to reverse Obama administration “net neutrality” rules governing the internet that were put in place in 2015. Some commentators are criticizing the announcement as a give-away to large telecom companies and an attack on consumers. But the Obama rules create some serious problems for consumers—problems that Pai says he wants to correct.
Under the Obama rules, internet service providers (ISPs) are subject to “rate-of-return” regulations, which the federal government previously applied to AT&T’s long-distance telephone service back when it was a monopoly more than 50 years ago. Ostensibly, rate-of-return regulation gives government officials the power to review and approve or reject ISP rates. In reality it basically guarantees ISPs government-enforced market protection and profitability, in exchange for regulators ensuring that ISPs won’t be too profitable.
As explained in this 2014 post, rate-of-return regulation involves more than just telecom. It is an attempt to settle fights between “producers” and “shippers”—whether those are farms, mines, and factories on one side and railroads and shipping lines on the other, or Netflix and Hulu on one side and ISPs on the other. In all those cases, the producers and shippers need each other to satisfy consumers, but they fight each other to capture the larger share of consumers’ payments. If shippers charge more, then farmers, factories, and Netflix must charge less in order to maintain the same level of sales.
The political resolution of the producer–shipper fights was the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and its rate-of-return regulations, which were initially written with railroads in mind. Similar efforts were later extended to trucking, air transportation, energy, and telecom. It took about 100 years for policymakers to accept that those efforts hurt consumers much more than it helped them, forcing on consumers too many bad providers with high prices and poor quality.