Internet service providers don’t like regulation.
Especially if they operate in the United States of America.
And perhaps that is why Donald Trump’s Federal Communication Commission has given us more than enough indications that it will do what ISPs want it to do.
Which is mainly:
Or at least less strict regulations.
Okay, that sounds great (in a negative sense) but is there any proof?
Then just have a look at Trump’s official Federal Communications Commission transition team.
Do take note that this is the team which will take the agency into a new direction by charting a new course for it.
The transition team mainly comprises of lawmakers who do not like net neutrality rules.
They also want current net neutrality laws to be less strict on internet service providers.
More simply put, they want far fewer government regulations.
And, of course, we remember what happened when the advisors in the transition team completed their analysis and came up with recommendations right?
Donald Trump, president of the United States of America, chose Ajit Pai (a Republican just for clarity’s sake) as the Chairman of Federal Communications Commission.
Ajit Pae is a very hard working man.
He likes to pursue his dreams and he likes to do that quickly.
Right now, his dream is to have no net neutrality laws.
And that has been his sole objective since his appointment:
To reverse everything the Obama administration did for net neutrality rules.
Most of Ajit’s work has involved reversing decisions which Tom Wheeler (Ajit’s Democratic predecessor) made back in the day.
FCC Has Made A Lot Of Changes To Existing Net Neutrality Laws Since Trump’s Inauguration
Of course, we don’t have enough time to discuss them all.
But as with all decisions, some are more important and immediate than others.
As far as the FCC leadership is concerned, it has made sure that the FCC fully backs a zero-rating policy.
What is this zero-rating policy?
It’s not much.
Basically, in all practicality, it enables internet service providers to excuse particular websites and other online services from complying with data caps.
Most of the time though, this is done via an agreement where websites pay internet service providers money.
Money for what?
Money to allow the websites to not have any data caps.
In short, internet service providers take money from websites to remove their data caps.
Needless to say, the zero-rating policy is controversial.
And not just in the United States of America.
In fact, in most of the countries other than the USA, the zero-rating policy is frowned upon.
Its fiercest critics are consumer advocates and other regulators.
These regulators and consumer advocates say that the zero-rating policy violates basic net neutrality principles.
One of those principles is that all content that is put up online should go through the same treatment from all network providers.
Total equality, in other words.
No content should be promoted by internet service providers just because a website paid them to do so.
As you can probably imagine, there is another side to the argument as well.
Proponents of the zero-rating policy (not all of them) say that the zero-rating policy will, in fact, help a very righteous purpose.
What is that purpose?
That purpose is to bring cheap internet access to people who are poor and otherwise will not be able to afford an internet service.
Does that sound believable?
To people like Roslyn Layton it does.
Roslyn Layton has served as a key member of Trump’s Federal Communications Commission transition team.
As a professional, Roslyn Layton engages in telecom research in Denmark at the Aalborg University.
She also is employed by the very conservative (but probably high paying) American Enterprise Institute as a visiting fellow.
All Of Trump Advisors Agree With Trump
Or maybe that’s not true.
But the Trump administration has not made one decision which goes against the overall personality of Donald Trump himself.
Similar, Roslyn Layton also isn’t actually authorized to talk about issues such as the nature of the work that the FCC transition team performs.
Instead, she was ready to speak about and describe her general (but random) views on topics such as telecom regulation.
Arstechnica had the opportunity to talk with here and that’s what we’ll discuss here.
Talking to Arstechnica, Layton gave the impression that the zero-rating policy should be used for a noble cause.
A noble cause along the lines of providing people who are poor, with an internet service.
Of course, this noble cause has a boundary.
That boundary is the United States of America (just that we’re clear that FCC isn’t going to become the Mother Teresa of government organizations).
The zero-rating policy, according to Layton, could become the next Free Basics program.
What is the free basics program?
Let’s start with who’s behind the Free Basics Program.
It is Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook.
And the Free Basics program is the technology giant’s way of giving back to developing countries in the form of implementations with local mobile carriers.
Layton told Arstechnica that she wanted a Free Basics for the United States of America.
She further said that there was a certain subset of people who were genuinely poverty-stricken.
And these were the kind of people who needed access to free basics such as different kinds of services.
Layton also said that she did not think the telecom companies have to pay for the program.
Rather, she believes, if the telecom companies want to get paid for such a program, they should just go ahead anyway and use advertising behind the program to support it.
She said she did not see any harm in such an approach.
Layton Has Other Interests Besides Providing Free Internet To The Poor
Is it any surprise that the industry is rife with speculation that Layton is on her way to be nominated as an FCC commissioner by Donald Trump himself?
Don’t get the wrong idea because nothing is official yet.
In other words, an official announcement is yet to materialize.
But here is the interesting bit.
Layton is actually at odds with some of the other FCC advisory team members about the file of Federal Communications Commission.
Reportedly, Trump’s FCC advisory squad wants to change the FCC’s workings.
Like a lot.
More specifically, they want to strip the FCC of some its most important roles.
One of them is to oversee competition and protect the consumer.
Trump’s advisory team wants the Federal Communications Commission to be stripped of those heavy burdens.
Layton has a different point of view.
She told Arstechnica that if anything she would like the Federal Communications Commission to
fortify its core economic functions.
Furthermore, she said, she also thinks the FCC should strengthen its other functions such as consumer protection.
Her plan consists of empowering the economists who work at the FCC.
Then, these economists would have enough resources to determine if particular ISPs are involved in specific actions which harm the end-user, that is, the consumers.
Moreover, she says, such a change would also help the FCC identify internet service providers who engage in questionable practices such as,
- Predatory service pricing
- Unnecessary bundling
- Strict tying arrangements
- And of course, foreclosure
Layton And Her Preferences
It should become clear to anyone by now that Layton is a very established individual and has a concrete idea about her preferences.
Mostly though, her preferences boil down to the word oversight.
But this oversight will be a different kind of oversight according to Layton.
She argues that policies such as the zero-rating policy and other kinds of free data programs are good.
And that these would eventually help out consumers who can’t afford these services without these programs.
People Outside The US Are Skeptical About Net Neutrality
As mentioned before, the Free Basics program from Facebook is in place for one simple reason:
Facebook wants to provide underdeveloped countries free access to a handful (and selected) websites via mobile carrier networks.
Facebook has implemented the Free Basics program in dozens of African countries along with other countries in places such as,
- The Middle East
- Latin America
- Asia- Pacific
More specifically though, the Free Basics program offers free connection to websites like Facebook.
That should have been obvious.
So let’s just move on.
The Free Basics program also offers a range of other free basic online services.
Online services such as,
- Maternal health guide
- Sports information
- Local government information
- Travel information
- Local jobs
And while all of that is great, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out two things.
Facebook’s free basics program does not offer access to sites which are not on the platform.
It is limited in the sense that the free basics program does not allow access to the whole of the internet.
Of course, since the program is offered by Facebook, you can bet your house on which website will always be offered.
But Facebook representatives say otherwise.
Officially, the company says that its platform is non-discriminatory and open.
But then, the company goes on to list some of the requirements that other developers along with governments and nonprofits will have to fulfill in order to “get” on the platform.
Facebook says that “other players” who want to be included in the program must be able to configure their websites and products to use fewer amounts of data.
They also need to make sure that their websites and services are compatible with the new Free Basics app.
And since we’re talking so much about the Free Basics app let’s take a little look at what the app is and isn’t.
The Free Basics app isn’t just a regular app.
It is optimized to be used with feature phones that have slow networks.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it does not work with smartphones.
But online services such as,
- Photos which are larger in size than 200KB
- Any type of file transfers
That is, they are not allowed.
In May 2015, Facebook honored developers around the world by opening its platform to them.
Of course, earlier, developers had criticized Facebook for releasing a version of the platform which was too restrictive.
The Free Basics platform got its first official launch on a Zambian carrier in July of 2014.
Back then, it launched under the official name internet.org
Needless to say, Facebook changed the name of the program.
And the new name as the Free Basics programs.
It took the company about a year to figure out that a name change was probably in order.
People who access websites such as Ars Technica are not really the target audience of the Free Basics program.
At least that is what Layton has acknowledged.
The reason being that this type of application is simply not suited to their needs.
Layton told Arstechnica that (for clarity’s sake) Arstechnica readers were well-educated and in most cases savvy people.
These people probably are capable enough to know how to play complicated online games which require expensive but advanced devices.
She further said that people who use the internet for the first time around don’t need such luxuries.
And that is the whole point.
Programs which are tailed for users who are using the internet for the first time in their life reduce the barrier that these people have to cross in order to get online.
One of the aims of the programs such as the Free Basics program is to reduce costs.
But there are other aims as well.
The program should be simple.
Moreover, it should simplify online tasks so that first-time internet users don’t find them hard to benefit from.
Online tasks should also be made more relevant to first-time internet users in programs such as the Free Basics program.
Of course, the Free Basics program is just a platform.
There is no way such as program can guarantee people in places such as Africa access to a mobile device.
With that said, the program can be integrated and used in a combination with similar other programs which offer free or at least subsidized mobile devices.
People In The US Are Rich
According to the Pew Research Center, around 95 percent of the adults in the United States of America own a cell phone.
Additionally, a giant 77 percent of the adults living in the US have a smartphone.
These high percentages take a significant hit when we move to the section of the population that have lower incomes.
Just to take an example, 64 percent of the people who do not make more than $30,000 per year own a mobile device such as a smartphone.
To FCC’s credit, it has facilitated to subsidize phone services for people who are poor.
With the help of programs such as LifeLine, FCC has played its due role since 1985.
In 2016, the FCC expanded its Lifeline program and allowed people who were poor to utilize a $9.25 household subsidy on a monthly basis to buy services such as mobile internet and/or home internet.
People who can’t afford regular services can use the subsidy to purchase bundles such as internet plus voice.
Poor people can also use the Lifeline program to get free smartphones.