The fight for net neutrality goes to round two

Woody Leonhard

With 1.1 million (and counting) consumer comments to ponder and an alliance of tech companies nipping at its heels, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission enters round two of the fight for net neutrality.

The end of the 120-day public-comment period ends Sept. 15 — at which time the real fight over access to the Internet begins.

This is the third installment of an ongoing series on Internet neutrality. The March 27 Top Story, “Why and when net neutrality is important,” highlighted how the topic of equal access to the net is more complex than commonly assumed. The article put a Netflix/Comcast agreement into its proper context — showing how the deal wasn’t a threat to net neutrality but simply a more efficient way for Netflix to stream its content over Comcast’s network.

The May 8 Top Story, “Net neutrality: What it is, why you should care,” discussed round one in the Federal Communications Commission’s current attempt to rewrite Internet-access rules. The story pointed out the liabilities in the FCC’s proposal for consumers; it ended with a call to weigh in via the Save the Internet blog.

(If you don’t feel up to speed with the technical details of net neutrality — beyond sound bites — I suggest you check out the May 8 Top Story. Then follow that up with Stephanie Crets’s blog, “A neutral guide to net neutrality,” which looks at the topic from a slightly different angle.)

Here’s a short review of the issues. This past April, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler put forth a proposal that would, for the first time, allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to create “fast lanes” for content providers willing to pay for the privilege. The proposal included changes that ISPs have been pushing for years — though with some minor concessions for consumers. (Calling them consumer protections seems too generous.) For example, ISPs could not (in theory) charge consumers more for specific data streams. In other words, a content provider such as Netflix could pay, say, Comcast for a faster pipeline; but the extra cost could not be passed along to the end consumer. (However, any consumer who wants to keep Netflix from going jaggy might have to pay Comcast for an overall faster connection.)

What net neutrality looks like depends on your perspective — consumer, content provider, service provider, etc. — but for most of us, the FCC’s fast-lane proposal doesn’t make the cut. It’s not even close. (Paul Venezia’s May 27 InfoWorld article has an excellent summary of why the proposal fails the net-neutrality smell test.)

On May 15, the FCC voted 3 to 2 — along political-party lines (two Republicans dissented) — to put the proposal out for 120 days of public comment. The commission would then make a final decision in mid-September.

In his May 15 U.S. News & World Report article, here’s what Tom Risen had to say about the breadth of opposition to the proposal:

“Many on both sides of the ideological spectrum and business world oppose Wheeler’s proposal.

“Consumer advocates charge that allowing payment for premium traffic speeds would permanently increase costs for the average cable customer. Internet giants, including Google, Facebook, and Amazon, also oppose the rules because of their potential to allow priority online traffic.

“Also in opposition are most — if not all — Republicans, who have long opposed net neutrality out of fear that it would stifle the free market of the Internet.”

New York Times contributor Edward Wyatt’s May 15 report highlights the different perceptions of net neutrality, whether there’s actually a threat to net neutrality, and how the FCC should approach the issue:

“The proposal also requests public comments on whether and by how much the commission should tighten regulation of Internet service providers. For example, the commission asks whether it should reclassify high-speed Internet service as a utility-like application, subject to stricter regulatory controls than now apply, and if it should ban certain practices that might impede consumers from getting equal access to all legal online content through their chosen Internet service provider.”

With the 120-day clock ticking, comments soon came piling in — at a record-breaking rate.

The FCC receives over a million comments

It’s a massive understatement to say there are strong feelings about the FCC’s proposed changes to Internet access. TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm put it into perspective in his Aug. 5 post:

“The only time the commission has seen more data was in response to Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction in the 2004 Super Bowl.”

Of course, not all of the comments disagree with the FCC’s fast-lane proposal. I imagine one or two might actually support it. But by now, it seems that everybody inside the Capital Beltway (except Wheeler) has disavowed the approach.

Case in point: As reported in a Washington Post article, in an Aug. 5 speech, President Obama stated:

“One of the issues around net neutrality is whether you are creating different rates or charges for different content providers. That’s the big controversy here. So you have big, wealthy media companies who might be willing to pay more and also charge more for spectrum, more bandwidth on the Internet, so they can stream movies faster. I personally, the position of my administration, as well as a lot of the companies here, is that you don’t want to start getting a differentiation in how accessible the Internet is to different users. You want to leave it open so the next Google and the next Facebook can succeed.”

Dozens of (mostly liberal) privacy-friendly organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Consumers Union, Mozilla, Reddit, ACLU, and Kickstarter issued a joint Aug. 8 press release (PDF) praising the president for his stance.

And last month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sent a letter to the Free Press Action Fund (PDF) which said:

“I am watching closely as the FCC drafts these rules. And I will work to ensure that these rules give consumers access to the lawful content they want when they want it, without interference, and ensure that priority arrangements that harm consumers are prohibited.”

As noted in the aforementioned May 15 New York Times article, many Republicans also oppose the FCC’s proposal — less on privacy grounds than in the belief that any Internet-access changes should be left to Congress. (Good luck with that.)

In the best of political traditions, the FCC’s Wheeler agrees with everybody. As reported in a PCWorld article, Wheeler stated:

“Anything that interferes with the virtuous cycle [of Internet growth] is something that can and should be prohibited. Prioritization, in my opinion, interferes with the virtuous cycle. Let me be really clear: If prioritization hurts consumers, hurts innovation, hurts competition, degrades service, it’s DOA.”

I admit to being one of the most jaded American observers of U.S. politics you’re likely to encounter. But in my view, the double-talk sets a new low.

Just this past week, Verizon announced that it was planning to throttle certain “unlimited” mobile accounts. (Verizon no longer offers new unlimited accounts; it probably assumes it can unilaterally change access rules for its service.) The public-interest group Public Knowledge is filing complaints with the FCC (PDF) about data-service throttling at Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile.

Giving input: The comment period is still open

I’m usually against any sort of heavy-handed government regulation. But in this instance, I don’t see any other way to protect consumers from big-money corporations poised to turn the Internet into a pay-at-both-ends-to-play infrastructure. I side with those who believe U.S. ISPs should be regulated under the same rules as telephone companies, wireless providers, and the like.

Large ISPs have effectively become localized monopolies, and they should be treated as such. That means putting them under the so-called “Title II” approach, which gives the FCC strong regulatory powers (at least until it gets sued, again). Washington Post writer Brian Fung offers an excellent overview of the topic.

If you haven’t yet made your opinion known, now would be a good time to consider the facts, come to a conclusion, and inform the FCC of your stance. Again, the 120-day comment period has been extended slightly, to Sept. 15.

As I noted in the May 8 installment, the easiest way to provide your input on net neutrality is via a Web-based form on the Save the Internet site. If you, too, agree with the Title II approach, specifically mention “Title II” in your comments. If you want your opinion sent to your congresscritter, include your ZIP code in the message.

The FCC wants a comment from everybody. Let’s give it to ’em! As I stated at the top, the fight for equal access to the Net isn’t over yet. The final battle is still to come. I suggest keeping an eye on the Save the Internet site. And I’ll keep you updated here as the struggle unfolds.

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Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.