"The only people who believe that there will be rate regulation are those who have an interest in saying there will be rate regulation," Feld said. "Actual investors do not believe there will be rate regulation."
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Feld acknowledged that the FCC and the courts will be able to stop some abusive price gouging—but he argued that's not the same thing as the expansive government control over pricing that exists for landline phones. For example, the FCC could punish a cable company that tries to charge a customer $2,000 for losing her modem when her house is destroyed in a hurricane, he said. But that sort of authority, Feld explained, already existed under standard consumer protection laws before the net neutrality decision.
Even the most vocal advocates for FCC regulation aren't calling for broad Internet price controls. Matt Wood, the policy director of activist group Free Press, wouldn't promise that his group would never push for price regulation in the future, but he argued that other policies designed to encourage competition will almost certainly be better options.
"As a consumer advocate, I'm not going to say the prices are really reasonable," he said. "That doesn't mean that we think the best way to make those rates reasonable is straight-out rate regulation."
For the critics of the net neutrality decision, however, price controls are not only a hypothetical fear—they explicitly exist in the new regulations.
The FCC included a "general conduct" rule to address a range of potential abuses by Internet providers. The rule states that Internet providers cannot "unreasonably interfere with or unreasonably disadvantage" the ability of users to access online content.
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FCC officials have explained that the rule gives the agency the authority to step in if Internet providers are using monthly data caps in an abusive way. The agency will also keep a close eye on providers that exempt certain sites or services from data caps. T-Mobile, for example, has a "Music Freedom" program that exempts music streaming apps from a customer's monthly data usage. Some net neutrality advocates are skeptical of any programs that allow Internet providers to pick and choose which online services succeed.
For the FCC's critics, that kind of oversight of a carrier's data plans is the essence of price control. "To me, it's just a distortion of the English language to say that's not rate regulation," said Randy May, the president of the Free State Foundation, which opposes the rules.
"This Order not only opens the door to rate regulation—it applies it from the get-go," said Jonathan Spalter, the chairman of Mobile Future, a lobbying group for Verizon, AT&T, and other cellular companies. "As the saying goes—if it walks like rate regulation, quacks like rate regulation, it must be rate regulation. So the FCC can't make this duck anything other than what it is."
But for the FCC's supporters, the general conduct standard isn't some massive power grab. It's just a way to ensure that some clever industry lawyers don't find a way to undermine the core net neutrality protections.
"I refer to the general conduct standard as the John Oliver rule," Public Knowledge's Feld said, referring to the comedian's popular rant on net neutrality. "It's basically just 'stop cable company f—kery.' "