What Do Net Neutrality Rules Mean For Web Users?

Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, coined the phrase "net neutrality." He discusses how the Federal Communications Commission's proposed changes could affect the average consumer.

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For more reaction, we turn to the person credited with coining the term net neutrality. Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia University. He says if the proposed changes go into effect, consumers can expect prices to rise.

TIM WU: Companies like Netflix, companies that - like Amazon that rely on not paying cable and telephone companies to reach consumers will have to pay. And therefore it will end up costing the consumer more.

CORNISH: Now, advocates of usage-based pricing are arguing that, you know, why shouldn't a company like Netflix or Google have to cover the cost of being a bandwidth hog. And they're also saying things that this should in some way enable people to buy cheaper broadband packages.

WU: Well, the problem is there's no real competition in broadband and so prices will not go down. They have never gone down. So I don't think that's going to happen. And as for contributing, these companies are already make enormous contributions. And, in fact, users pay a lot for their broadband to be fast. So it's kind of a strange argument.

Really, what they're talking about here is a new way for cable companies mainly to make more money. And that's one part of the economy I think that doesn't need to make more money.

CORNISH: Now, the head of the FCC has argued that there is a lot of misinformation about their proposal. And there are provisions in the draft that would provide some oversight to deter companies from taking kind of drastic actions. What's your reaction to what they've put forward?

WU: My reaction is that the commission is not omnipotent nor omnipresent, it doesn't know everything that's going on, that there will be a serious cost in terms of free speech. That's very hard to measure economically, very hard for them to see. And so that their idea that they can supervise and see everything that's happening on the Internet, and know that speech is being hurt, is not correct.

CORNISH: But you also have an incredibly active Internet activist community, right? I mean I think people saw that with the Stop Online Privacy Act, that debate. Isn't this a scenario where, again, the Internet in a way polices itself, that people would highlight what they think is abuse by these companies?

WU: I think that community may start policing Tom Wheeler and the FCC. I don't think the community is able to police monopoly carriers. There's no real other option. There's a lot of economic power there. And, as I said, activism needs to be directed towards the FCC to protect net neutrality and not abandon this important principle.

CORNISH: Now, one other thing. Tom Wheeler also says that the new rules would look at any paper priority arrangements carefully, and on a case-by-case basis, and block the ones that aren't found to be commercially reasonable. That's still not enough protection for you, it sounds like.

WU: No, commercially reasonable and free speech are not principles that coexist well. I think we've learned from the history of free speech in this country that you need to have a clear principle, not a case-by-case adjudication of free speech performed by an unaccountable federal bureaucrat.

CORNISH: What's the worst-case scenario here for you, Professor Wu, as far as you're concerned?

WU: I think the worst case is that we see the Internet kind of wither and disappear as a forum for free speech and new companies getting started, a world in which to get started it's more like cable television, you need a lot of money to even open a website and really reach a number of users, that things become entrenched and kind of frozen.

And we've seen what cable TV has become, what it could have become. I think Internet could very easily become that, something where it's only a forum for the rich to speak and nobody else gets heard.

CORNISH: Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia University, an advocate of net neutrality. He's opposed to the new rules for proposed by the FCC that could open the door to new price structures for Internet access.

Tim Wu, thanks so much for talking with us.

WU: It's been a pleasure.

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