Some Professors Caution Against Net Neutrality Rule Change

UPDATED: December 4, 2017 at 12:16 a.m.

As the Federal Communications Commission prepares to vote on a proposal to dismantle current net neutrality rules, professors at Harvard Business School and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences cautioned against several aspects of the proposal.

Last month, the FCC released a new proposal that would remove previously standing rules that prohibit Internet service providers from blocking, slowing down, or charging different prices for access to different internet content. The FCC will vote on the proposal on December 14th.

James H. Waldo, a computer science professor and the chief technology officer at SEAS, explained that arguments against net neutrality have evolved since the concept's inception.

“It started off with the idea that the Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon could do differential pricing based on the content of the package that was being delivered, the idea being that things like video took a lot more bandwidth than other forms of Internet traffic,” Waldo said.

However, Waldo said this rationale has since largely morphed into a strategy for the economic benefit of Internet service providers.

“What this has now become is an attempt by the Internet service providers to be able to charge particular customers... different prices based on who are at the ends of the line,” he said.

Venkatesh Narayanamurti, a Professor of Technology and Public Policy at SEAS, said he believes Congress should pass legislation to deal with the issue of net neutrality because of the conflicting interests of Internet service providers, websites, and consumers.

“Verizon and AT&T;, they obviously have one axe to grind. Then, the people like Netflix and Amazon have a different axe to grind. And then the consumers, you and I, have different needs,” Venkatesh said.

Shane M. Greenstein, a professor at the Business School, said most experts support the provision from prior administrations—both Democratic and Republican—that prohibits blocking and throttling, the practice of companies deliberately impairing content. The FCC’s current proposal would eliminate this provision.

“It is the FCC’s job to stop throttling, to stop firms from blocking other traffic,” Greenstein said.

Greenstein added that the dismantling of net neutrality is not likely to directly or immediately affect Harvard or other academic institutions, because most academic institutions receive Internet connection through “private companies or direct contracts.”

But according to Waldo, the dismantling of net neutrality will give Internet service providers the power to harm academic institutions, even if providers do not decide to use that power.

“I can see them, for example, deciding that they want to charge extra for courses that are being taught by HarvardX, and if that's the case, then we would probably have to discontinue such courses because we're not going to pay for courses that are offered for free,” Waldo said. “It could have the same kind of effect on some of the things that are done by the Division of Continuing Education, which does a lot of its learning over the Internet.”

While Waldo said these possibilities are unlikely, he also said that the dismantling of net neutrality could lead to a wide array of unforeseen consequences.

“I doubt that they will get to the point of charging Harvard IP addresses differentially as consumers, but they might do that. The point is we have no idea what this could lead to,” he said.

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