Thursday, January 16, 2014

142.6 - Net neutrality neutralized

Net neutrality neutralized

One last thing, which again requires some explanation.

Net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally. Some streaming video from some major media corporation gets no special treatment as compared to the email from your grandmother. It's all the same.

Net neutrality as a principle is one of the main reasons that the internet has grown so far so fast: It's democratic, kind of like one byte, one vote, if you will.

With the rapid growth of broadband and thus of video and intensive graphics as opposed to just text, that became an even more important consideration. In 2010, the FCC issued long-awaited and long-pressed-for regulations to that effect, designed to prevent internet carriers, such as Verizon, from favoring some traffic over others - favoring, that is, those that can pay extra for the privilege of higher transmission speeds. Now, however, net neutrality is under threat.

On January 14, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the rules, arguing that the FCC didn't have the legal authority to issue the regulations.

The decision came in response to a suit filed by - guess who - Verizon, which argued it should be able to do exactly what net neutrality was designed to prevent: the ability to charge content providers for faster connections with their end users, with the inevitable result that large, rich, powerful media corporations get the special treatment while others - the smaller, the lesser-known, the start-ups - are stuck in the backwaters. It's kind of like if all roads were privately owned by a few giant corporations and all the highways had tolls on them: You pay the extra or you take the twisty back roads with all the traffic lights and stop signs - and no, the scenery is not worth it.

A media watchdog and advocacy group called Free Press said in response to the ruling that "the biggest broadband providers will race to turn the open and vibrant Web into something that looks like cable TV" with tiers of service. What's more, because as part of its decision the court threw out an FCC rule that barred providers from blocking net traffic outright, the comparison may be even more apt: Just as not every channel is available in any cable system, the carrier could simply refuse to connect you to some site it doesn't want you to get to or doesn't want to carry, perhaps one that is politically unpopular or that is a competitor.

The silver lining, if I can call it one, is that the decision was based on what amounts to a technicality: The court found that broadband providers aren’t “common carriers,” like telephone companies, and so can't be regulated as such under the law. The FCC retains the underlying power that Verizon wanted to strip away, so it could be a matter of re-issuing the regulations on a firmer legal basis by reclassifying the companies. Two of the three judges in the case suggested as much.

Unfortunately, that would take desire and political will and the current chair of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the telcom industry, seems to lack both. He says the FCC must have the ability to preserve the net's open architecture, he says he supports net neutrality, but he also says that he doesn't want to regulate broadband providers but rather wants to police them on a case-by-case basis if their behavior is anticompetitive or hinders Web access.

Oh joy, I'm sure that will work out just as well as it has with regulating the banks.

Barring some dramatic turn of events such as the White House developing a spine or Wheeler developing a conscience or a successful appeal to the Supreme Court, which is itself a two-fer, one for an appeal and two for it being successful, the future of the net may well be found in the past.

How? Well, several years ago, there was a debate over the Fairness Doctrine. This was an FCC rule that required broadcasters to deal with issues "of public interest," including some controversial ones, and that, overall, the station's coverage of those issues be reasonably "fair" with various sides having a "reasonable" opportunity to be heard.

Corporations spent years trying to get the rule repealed. A main argument was that the rule was unnecessary because broadcasters could be trusted to address controversies, and do it a way fair to all sides, on their own. At the time, I wondered why, if that was true, they were devoting such time and energy and money to getting it repealed.

Finally, it was repealed - followed by the explosion of right-wing talk radio, he virtual disappearance of liberal voices, and the emergence of overtly biased networks such as Fox. I had my answer.

And what do we hear now? Randall Milch, executive vice president of Verizon, had this to say:
One thing is for sure: Today’s decision will not change consumers’ ability to access and use the Internet as they do now. Verizon has been and remains committed to the open Internet that provides consumers with competitive choices and unblocked access to lawful websites and content when, where, and how they want.
In other words, "We went to a lot of time and money to get rid of a regulation that didn't make us do anything we wouldn't do anyway." We have been down this road before. We have to make sure we don't wind up in the same place.


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