Net neutrality rollbacks promise disaster

They once called it the world wide web, but a move this week by federal regulators could slow — in some cases stop — our virtual travels.

Imagine a scenario where a utility company is allowed to reduce the flow of electricity to a home because of the brand of appliances its owner installs.

That kind of monopolistic discrimination would be rejected on its face by both consumers and appliance manufacturers as an unacceptable perversion of the principles upon which our public utility network was built. So why in an era when access to high-speed internet has become essential to modern life would the Federal Communications Commission move to abolish rules that protect consumers?

For years so called “net neutrality” rules have prohibited internet service providers from prioritizing one customer’s online activity over another, regulations that prevented companies from creating fast lanes where only certain types of information would be allowed to flow.

It also ensures free speech protections by preventing internet companies from blocking sites just because managers or investors don’t like their content.

Essentially those protections ensured everybody’s activity on the information superhighway flowed at substantially the same speed and, much like our interstate highway system, allows every car onto the road, regardless of brand.

But FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, at the behest of internet service providers like AT&T and Verizon, decided this week to bite on an argument that such rules hamper free commerce. So now the FCC argues its own decision to protect consumers in 2015 was misguided and should be trashed.

Free commerce, competition and all that sounds like a good thing, right?

Not exactly, particularly when we’re talking about what is essentially a utility.

What happens if a cable company that also sells high-speed internet access decides to throttle back the speed of streaming video from sites like Netflix and Amazon — both sites credited with fueling a massive migration of customers from cable TV subscriptions to streaming TV?

Or how about when a major tech mogul decides she or he should block customers’ access to a news website simply because they disagree with the site’s political endorsements?

It’s the kind of selective service practice we would reject wholeheartedly from any other public utility, so the FCC’s contention internet access should receive different treatment than any other utility is befuddling.

The phone company would never be allowed to cut off a customer’s service because he or she talks about controversial topics. Likewise an electric utility wouldn’t be allowed to reduce the amperage it supplies to a home because its owners bought the wrong brand of refrigerator.

So why in the world would we allow internet service providers to operate in such a way?

It seems if FCC leaders have their way, the world once at our fingertips will move a little further away.