Demonstrators rally in support of net neutrality earlier this month.

Demonstrators rally in support of net neutrality earlier this month. Credit: AP / Mary Altaffer

The internet is our digital superhighway. It needs to be protected from roadblocks and detours.

The Federal Communications Commission is voting on Thursday on rules that could change internet access for consumers and businesses, potentially adding barriers for some, and faster pathways for others.

The FCC’s existing regulations, known as net neutrality, require internet providers to offer the same level of connectivity and service to everyone for the same price. In other words, a provider can’t choose to slow down the service of some businesses, while speeding it up for others, or charging websites different rates. Under those rules, as for other utilities like water and electric, internet service doesn’t play favorites and consumers and businesses alike get a relatively equal playing field.

But FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wants to lift the rules, saying a free marketplace would encourage more investment in better service and more innovation in new products and pathways.

That’s possible. Pai notes that many of the internet “global powerhouses” were born before net-neutrality rules, and that lighter regulation will lead to newer, better developments.

But there’s also the potential for trouble. Could unraveling net neutrality widen the digital divide, causing disparities in who can access which websites, and how fast? Would one internet provider slow down the connections to anyone affiliated with a competitor? Would tiers of service crop up, affecting consumers and small businesses alike, so only those who could afford full access would get it?

Pai and others say no. With anti-trust and other rules still in place, with regulators still watching, and with competitors to fill in the gaps, the bad-news scenarios wouldn’t come to pass, they say.

But there are other concerns, too. The move to repeal net neutrality regulations puts the Trump administration at odds with itself. How can the same federal government that wants to undo net neutrality also oppose the merger of AT&T and Time Warner? The Justice Department is suing to block the deal, saying it would hurt consumers. And yet, that’s really only true if the internet’s rules of the road are eased.

Complicating this issue further, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has said a “massive” identity theft may have led to as many as 1 million fake comments submitted to the FCC regarding the issue. That alone is enough reason to hit the pause button.

The best next step is to delay the vote. But it’s far more likely the FCC will lift the regulations. Even then, the federal government should make the effort to hear from real consumers, address the fears and concerns, and make a better case that treating internet service as a traditional utility would starve it of investment and innovation.

And there has to be a way to minimize the ongoing legal challenges and avoid a flip-flopping of rules every time an administration changes. Perhaps repealing the utility designation to allow for cutting-edge development could be paired with a federal law that protects net neutrality more specifically. That could satisfy the concerns of both sides.

There is a better path to a solution, one that spurs innovation while keeping information open and free-flowing. — The editorial board