Saturday, November 15, 2014

182.3 - Clown Award: FCC Chair Tom Wheeler

Clown Award: FCC Chair Tom Wheeler

Now it's time for one of out regular features, the Clown Award, given as always for meritorious stupidity.

The winner of the Big Red Nose this week is one of the most important people of who you have probably never heard who is not a right-wing billionaire: Tom Wheeler.

Our story starts sometime back, but the current chapter began on November 10, when Barack Obama, the Amazing Mr. O, put an end to months and months of vacillating and tip-toeing - in other words, months and months of being Barack Obama - and came out in favor of the "strongest possible rules to protect Net neutrality," the principle that internet service providers, or ISPs, can't favor some Internet traffic over others, that all Web traffic must be treated equally. It has been a bedrock philosophical principle of the Internet all along and has been a major driving force behind its development and expansion, because everybody had equal access so everybody had an equal chance to get their message out, whether that message was commercial or philosophical or political or, as seems to be true with most every human endeavor, porn.
That principle has been under attack for some time by the major ISPs such as Comcast and Time-Warner, who want to cut deals with high-traffic websites to promise them faster transmission speeds in return for special fees. Years ago, when the idea was just getting going, Al Gore used to refer to what became the Internet as "the information superhighway." You can think of what the telecoms want as putting toll booths on every entrance ramp to that highway so if you can afford the tolls, you get to be on the multi-lane highway, but if you can't, you're stuck on the single-lane, rutted back roads complete with traffic jams and red lights. Many of the big websites also like the idea because it tends to cement their dominance against the risk of some new upstart website competing for their traffic, since the giants could easily afford the fees that would be imposed and start-ups quite possibly couldn't.

The FCC has been muddling about, trying to find a way to satisfy the corporate giants while at least looking like it's protecting Net neutrality.

Now, Obama has come out in favor of the simplest, most straightforward way of dealing with this: reclassify ISPs as "common carriers" under the Telecommunications Act, which would allow their regulation as public utilities and, just as is the case with your telephone, make it illegal, quoting the law, "to make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services." Just as every phone call is equal, all Web traffic would be equal.

Tom Wheeler
Enter Tom Wheeler.

Why is he important? Because Tom Wheeler is the chair of the FCC.

Just hours after Obama's statement, and even as his own office released a statement claiming that Wheeler opposes what are called Internet "fast lanes," Wheeler was telling a group of business executives from major Web companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Etsy that he wants a more "nuanced" position, what he calls a "hybrid" approach, one which essentially would allow precisely the sort of fee-for-speed arrangements that the principle of Net neutrality rejects while claiming to protect Net neutrality by saying that paid prioritization deals would have to prove that they are just and reasonable. In other words, such deals would be subject to review on a case-by-case basis and look at how well that procedure has worked to control corporate mergers.

Anyway. Skip the legal technicalities involved here. In fact, skip the technical technicalities. Here's a handy quick guide to four things to keep in mind in thinking about this.

One: If someone loudly insists that they are absolutely opposed to "site-blocking," which means ISPs using their control of traffic to block users from access to legal websites of which the corporation disapproves, they are trying to con you. Everyone from every point of view on this has been against site-blocking all along. The real fight here is not over site-blocking, it is over paid prioritization and its opposite, throttling, which is deliberately slowing down access speed to a site. Anyone ballyhooing their opposition to site-blocking is trying to hide their approval of prioritization and throttling.

Two: Verizon, a telecom with a major stake in the outcome of all this, is starting a new on-line tech and lifestyle magazine called Applicants for jobs there have been told in so many words that they will not be allowed to write anything about Net neutrality. (Or domestic spying, by the way, another area where Verizon has let's call it a vested interest.)

Three: Ted Cruz is against Net neutrality; he called it "Obamacare for the Internet," which is obviously supposed to be something self-evidently bad although I'm not sure exactly what.

Four: Tom Wheeler is a former lobbyist for the telecommunications industry who recently declared about his position on the FCC "I am an independent agency." Not "I am with an independent agency" or even "I head an independent agency," but "I am an independent agency."

L'├ętat, c'est moi.

Which means there's a fifth thing you should keep in mind: Tom Wheeler is a clown.

Sources cited in links:

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