The net neutrality debate

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are putting pressure on the FCC and Congress to abandon the current principle of treating all data on the Internet equally

The controversy

Net neutrality is a vital, controversial issue that demands close attention by anyone who uses the Internet, i.e., all of us…  Long story short: Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are putting pressure on the FCC and Congress to abandon the current principle of treating all data on the Internet equally, with little or no differentiation for user or content. Instead, they strongly support a new framework that would include–

  • A ‘multi-level’ Internet, in which there are different charges and, potentially (though they deny it) even control of content for users, sites, platforms, and applications; and
  • Lower costs for those who can afford it, e.g., big companies, would pay more for better/faster service with the vast majority of individual users on a lower tier of speed/support.

Major ISPs argue that they would not compromise services in any way for the average user, despite the growing consensus of most experts of how things would play out if net neutrality were abandoned.

Recent developments

The trigger for this unprecedented debate was a major court decision in January of this year that stripped the FCC of its power to enforce network neutrality protections. To put this in perspective, understand that–

  • This regulatory framework was in place for years–with telecom companies conforming to net neutrality standards–resulting both from formal and informal regulatory pressure.
  • Many are very concerned that it opens the door to telecom companies using technologies to monitor and even control data sent over their networks. –Why would they want to control content? For starters, to further their own political agendas and throttle those opposed to said agendas. Critics claim that his potentially could affect U.S. elections.

Things heated up again in May when former cable company lobbyist, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, proposed a ‘compromise’ regulatory framework. In fact, Wheeler had originally planned to unveil new net neutrality rules no later than this month. However, the FCC’s trial balloon briefing for major public and private stakeholders on the ‘compromise proposal’ didn’t go well.

President Obama’s takes a clear stand

On November 10, President Obama came out strongly in support of maintaining an open Internet, urging the Federal Communications Commission to implement “the strongest possible rules” to protect it. As a result, the net neutrality debate will move forward well into 2015. Clearly, Wheeler is now “caught” between the wishes of the White House and overwhelming public support for net neutrality on the one hand, and the agenda of Internet service providers on the other.

Next, I’ll explore this issue at greater depth, with additional information, e.g., on why ISPs claim they need a new regulatory framework for the Internet.

Legal, technical infrastructure, political and related issues

There is mind-numbing complexity to ‘net neutrality’ encompassing legal, technical infrastructure, political and related issues. So much so, in fact, that if you are interested in exploring its full scope, consider doing your own research with focus on reputable articles and books that highlight all sides of the ongoing debate. I say all sides because there are more than just two schools of thought about how to move beyond the current impasse.

Net Neutrality has overwhelming popular support

Public support for the idea of net neutrality is overwhelming. A Sunlight Foundation analysis a few months ago found that more than 99 percent of the U.S. population is strongly in favor of net neutrality. In his “Last Week Tonight” HBO series this past season, John Oliver took a strong stand in support of net neutrality–satirically targeting Wheeler as a cable industry insider. His show triggered an increase in public critical comments for the year to over 4 million.

In fact, the majority of companies that use the Internet strongly support net neutrality—and most all of the companies that oppose it will profit financially if it is dismantled. While ISPs are optimistic about the general benefits of dismantling net neutrality, companies that use the Internet are not. In fact, more than 100 companies—including Google, Microsoft, Twitter, eBay and Netflix—have united in publicly condemning any move towards paid prioritization.

Net neutrality aligns with the ‘common carrier’ precept that facilities central to the public life and economy of our nation, including canal systems, railroads, public highways, telegraph and telephone networks should be protected from private sector exploitation. Though Congress wrote common carrier rules into the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC has not yet applied them to broadband Internet communications.

Wheeler’s dilemma

At a recent news conference, Wheeler commented that major Cable and telecom firms are going to sue ‘no matter what.’ AT&T and other ISPs have promised legal action to stop any such policy implementation–defining it as beyond the FCC’s scope of authority. To prepare for that eventuality, he says he wants to make sure that the FCC’s record in support of whatever rules it develops is strong.

Republican congressional leadership is aligned with ISPs against Net Neutrality

Republican leadership in the House and the Senate has aligned with broadband providers in strong opposition to Obama’s position that the FCC use utility-style regulation (Title II) that seek strong net neutrality rules. Interestingly, a recent University of Delaware poll found both Republicans and Democrats opposed to any policy undermining net neutrality in roughly equivalent proportions (+/- 80%).

Several arguments against Net Neutrality

  • Critics claim that a Title II-defined net neutrality has to have exceptions. For example, some Internet applications, like Skype, Netflix and videoconferencing, are already legally prioritized because they cannot work in the overflow of regular Internet traffic. Defenders counter that Title II would only ban “unjust or unreasonable (rate) discrimination.”
  • The ISPs claim they only will have the money and incentive to expand their network if they can charge major internet users like Netflix and the Google more. Defenders say that the underlying issue is really about who will assume the heavy costs of building the infrastructure to handle rapidly expanding Internet traffic. It is inevitable that one or the other of the two industries (ISPs or mega corporate Internet users) is going to have to charge the public more.

Why I support Net Neutrality

With an issue this complex, there is no certainty how any new policy emerging from the current debate would play out. Nonetheless, I believe net neutrality should be enforced for reasons already described as well as the following–

  • Some ISPs, AT&T in particular, have made it clear that they plan to charge for fast lanes and prioritization if the FCC rules in their favor.
  • Without net neutrality, creative tech innovators would no longer be able to compete with established players in the fast lane. The Internet could lose its ‘bottom up’ engine of creativity. Paid prioritization could shut down Internet-based startups that cannot afford better access.
  • Moreover, there is no guarantee that ISPs would reinvest their fast lane revenue into the Internet infrastructure.
  • Most alarming: the worst-case scenario possibility of the average consumer, including nonprofit spokespeople, could face a channel-by-channel ‘pay-per-view’ Internet, undermining their ability to participate in the digital economy.
  • Finally, in the past 10 years ISPs have already censored Internet content in the following cases: AT&T’s jamming of a rock star’s political protest; Comcast’s throttling of online file sharing through BitTorrent; Verizon Wiriness’s censorship of NARAL Pro-Choice America, and; Telus’ blocking of striking workers’ web site.