Net neutrality as consumer protection

At the Progress and Freedom Foundation annual conference, FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras asserted that her agency has the authority to address discriminatory actions by broadband providers. The implication was that Congress and the FCC need not adopt new rules to protect network neutrality. Majoras’ remarks were clearly directed at Congress, where net neutrality is a major sticking point on proposed telecom legislation.

Her remarks raise a deeper question. Is net neutrality a consumer protection issue? Advocates such as Tim Wu have often positioned it that way, and the FCC’s broadband policy statement, modeled after former Chairman Powell’s “Four Freedoms” idea, is couched in terms of consumer rights. I can see the logic in such an approach. Talking about safeguards for you as an Internet user sounds more appealing than promoting protection for companies like Google, Earthlink, and Microsoft.

In the long run, though, I’m not sure consumer protection is the right way to frame the debate. The kinds of broadband discrimination that directly block users from reaching sites are the easiest to detect and the least likely to succeed. It’s subtle architectural choices within the network, along with new economic models for interconnection with content and applications providers, that we should be worried about. And those don’t show up on a “consumer protection” radar screen.