The Assault on Network Neutrality
I remember growing up when my family got our first PC – just like when families bought their first television sets in the 1950s, there we were, huddled around this magical and mysterious piece of equipment that supposedly had the power to revolutionize our way of life.
Our astonishment and wonder quickly morphed, however, into, “Huh, this thing is slow.” Amongst the labyrinth of programs, there was this button labeled “Netscape Navigator,” and towards the bottom of the little introductory image that came up when you double clicked it you saw the words 56k. Oh, the sonorous whirrs and clicks of innovation! The beat boxing of the future! The breathless minutes (or hours) of waiting for an entire web page to load! “Mom! Come over here, it’s almost done!” The genius of the internet was lost to me as a 4th grader just wanting to watch movie trailers.
Fast forward to the present day. One hardly needs to describe the vital role the internet plays in most all of our lives (if you’re reading this, chances are you agree). The internet is, indeed, many things to many people. And while there certainly lies the seedy and downright dangerous underworld to it, I’m of the opinion that the internet has brought about far more good in the world than bad. And, given President Obama’s recent announcement of $750 million to go towards providing 99% of students with high speed internet, evidently so do many other people.
All this was gravely threatened on January 14th when the District of Columbia Federal Appeals Court rejected the Federal Communications Commission’s network neutrality rules (official court ruling here). What is net neutrality, you may ask? In the words of open internet attorney Marvin Ammori, it is the idea that telecommunications companies such as Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner Cable –
“[must be] neutral and users don’t need anyone’s permission to invent, create, communicate, broadcast, or share online. The neutral and level playing field provided by permissionless innovation has empowered all of us with the freedom to express ourselves and innovate online without having to seek the permission of a remote telecom executive.”
So no blocking of certain websites, no charging certain websites more than others to operate on the network, no slower loading times – the internet is to be a meritocracy in which the websites and services that succeed are the ones that prove their worth through design, innovation, and utility.
Since at least 2005, big telecoms have salivated over the prospect of being able to pick and choose the winners and losers of the internet. In 2006 they staged a bit of a bait and switch by supporting legislation that would prevent them from blocking services to certain websites outright, but would allow them to either charge certain websites more for using their network, and/or provide inferior service to them – online discrimination. And, as Ammori points out, all it really takes is a slower loading time for consumers to walk away from a website or service.
Years of advocating against this preposterous loophole resulted in the FCC adopting non-discrimination rules in 2010, thereby allowing for net neutrality. But that same year, Verizon took the FCC to court over the net neutrality language, culminating in this recent ruling. Telecoms insist, of course, that they have no intention of discriminating against any website (why spend exorbitant time and resources for this, then?), yet already there are signs of short circuits.
What now, then? Democrats in Congress have introduced legislation to restore net neutrality. President Obama, a longtime supporter of open internet, addressed the recent ruling in an online Q&A saying that he’s confident the FCC will use its authority to reinstate net neutrality.
Indeed, the ruling did contain a bit of a silver lining – saying that while the basis upon which net neutrality rested was faulty, the FCC did, nonetheless, have the power to “promulgate rules governing broadband providers’ treatment of Internet traffic.” In essence, the FCC must choose between keeping its current definition of internet access as an “information service” and therefore free from all non-discrimination regulations, or make the call that the internet is a “common carrier” which would allow the FCC to force telecoms to provide equal service to all websites.
With Congress being, well, Congress, there are many open Internet advocates calling for the FCC to take the step to re-classify broadband as a common carrier, giving internet access the same designation as other vital utilities like electricity and telephone lines, which would then give the Commission the authority to closely regulate network providers and reinstate the non-discrimination rule.
This may well be the best option. Either way, Americans should be fearful and angry over the prospects of the up to now open, free, surprising, educational, empowering, and democratic internet becoming the mafia dominion of large telecommunications companies. The internet has brought about economic, educational, and political revolutions. What further revolutions lie ahead in the coming years as cloud based computing rockets forward? And how many ideas will be choked to death with Verizon demanding a toll at every turn? If one is of the belief that having the sum total of the world’s knowledge immediately and reliably accessible is a good thing, then let the recent court ruling be a call to action. We at Civinomics have created an initiative calling for the FCC to make the switch and designate the internet as a common carrier. If you believe that the internet ought to remain free and open, add your vote and your voice here.