Episode 147: Is Net Neutrality Dead?


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In the forty-five years since the “infant Internet uttered its first words“, its social, economic, and political impact has been undeniable. With no central authority or governance to dictate how we access and share information, we have come to see ourselves as being part of the so-called ‘Information Age. Virtually every aspect of our lives has radically changed - including the way that we interact with each other, how we do business, how we travel, and critically, the ease at which we have unfiltered access to a seemingly never-ending pool of information.

The Open Internet Principle

The World Wide Web, as we currently know it, is grounded in the ‘Open Internet’ principle – that is, the idea that every user should have open and equal access to high-speed Internet service. It ensures that consumers can make their own choices about what services and applications to use, and are free to decide what they wish to share and create with others. This principle, sometimes referred to as ‘Net Neutrality’, promotes competition, encourages innovation, and ensures freedom to information. However, ongoing legal and political issues in the United States have caused fierce debate regarding its future viability.

As mentioned, since the inception of the Internet, every user has been afforded equal, or ‘neutral’ treatment by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, created rules in 2011 to maintain this state of affairs – but on January 14th, a federal appeals court decision invalidated these provisions.

The ruling stated that a government agency does not have the power to require broadband carriers to comply with Net Neutrality regulations concerning Internet traffic. The FCC, having opted to classify broadband providers in a manner that exempts them from treatment as ‘common carriers’ (under the Telecommunications Act of 1996), was ruled to be unable to impose “open Internet” rules on these companies, leading to the widespread proclamation that Net Neutrality is dead.

Is Net Neutrality Dead?

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While there can be no doubt that the D.C. circuit’s decision to side in favor of Verizon in, Verizon V. FCC was disastrous, Net Neutrality isn’t quite dead yet. Nevertheless, the ruling could inevitably put Web users at the mercy of phone and cable companies who already enjoy unprecedented power, and in some regions, virtual monopolies.

This podcast (this is the accompanying transcript) will examine the concept of net neutrality, explain its importance, and suggest what can be done to prevent the Open Internet becoming a thing of the past.

To begin, let’s hear from Matt Wood, Policy Director at the media reform group FreePress, for more on the FCC’s regulations and the court ruling that struck them down, in a clip taken from ‘Breaking the Set with Abby Martin’:

Obama on Net Neutrality

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama emphasized his support for Net Neutrality, and expressed hope that the FCC would use its authority to protect the open Internet:

“It’s something that I’ve cared deeply about ever since I [first] ran for office,” said Obama, answering a question in a live video chat. “I’ve [always] been a strong supporter of Net Neutrality. The new commissioner of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, whom I appointed…is a strong supporter of Net Neutrality [also].”

These sentiments are consistent with Obama’s earlier stance on the issue, as public remarks in 2007 and 2010 demonstrate:

The President’s most recent comments refer to the new commissioner of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, as a ‘strong supporter of ‘Net Neutrality.’ While some have speculated that the FCC may use the court’s ruling to become even more powerful and pervasive, Wheeler himself is certainly saying the right things at this stage, noting in the first statement released by the FCC that the commission will not look to broaden the scope of its authority:

“The government, in the form of the FCC, is not going to take over the Internet,” he said. “It is not going to dictate the architecture of the Internet. It is not going to do anything that gratuitously interferes with the organic evolution of the Internet in response to developments in technology, business models, and consumer behavior.”

According to Edward Wyatt of the New York Times, Wheeler answered a reporter’s question at a recent news conference about how the F.C.C. would react by pounding the lectern, emphasizing each word: “We will preserve and protect the open Internet.”

Wheeler has also stressed that the FCC “is not going to abandon its responsibility to oversee that broadband networks operate in the public interest.” This of course raises an important question of what exactly is in the public interest, a term that as noted by a previous FCC commissioner Michael K. Powell, confers ‘extraordinarily broad power on the Agency‘.

‘The End of the Internet’

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It’s worth noting at this stage that concerns about Net Neutrality are certainly nothing new, as this PBS Now piece from 2006 illustrates:

In the above clip, Craig Aaron, CEO of the aforementioned FreePresssimplified the issue by stating that Net Neutrality is simply another phrase for ‘internet freedom’. Aaron remains a huge advocate for this cause, and in a recent web post on his organization’s website, expressed his support for the President’s position:

“We’re greatly encouraged by the president’s clear support for the FCC’s authority to protect the open Internet,” said Aaron. “The only way the FCC can preserve Network Neutrality is to return broadband to its prior classification as a common carrier service. That’s the law Congress wrote for our communications networks, and the blueprint Chairman Wheeler must follow to protect Internet users against unjust discrimination.”

On January 30th, Free Press and a coalition of Internet rights and free speech advocates delivered a petition signed by more than one million people urging the agency to use its authority and restore Net Neutrality.

A ‘long fight’ ahead

Free Press has been clear in its conviction that we are at the beginning of a long fight to ‘save the Internet’. Quoting directly from its document, ‘Keeping the Internet Open For Everyone’:

“Even though Net Neutrality made the Internet what it is, network operators have worked hard to eliminate these protections. They want to extract even more profit from their customers, and from content and app providers, by deciding which sites and services their customers can access. Without Net Neutrality, major broadband providers — all of which are also in the pay-TV business — could favor their own shows and movies while blocking or slowing down services like Netflix. They could prioritize traffic from companies like Apple and Google that can afford to pay a toll but keep startups in the slow lane. They could charge their own customers extra just for visiting certain websites or using certain applications — as when those customers watch a YouTube video or update Facebook. Big companies have the resources to survive such threats, but startups and small businesses don’t.”

When the FCC released its rules for protecting a free and open Internet in 2011, it was in response to a string of abuses by phone and cable companies. Since the January 14th DC Circuit Court order that the FCC has no authority to enforce Network Neutrality rules, AT&T has already submitted several patents that account for specific ways to take advantage of the FCC’s limited authority. Verizon faces allegations that they have been slowing access to certain services, specifically Netflix and the Amazon Cloud, although the company has denied these claims.

Social implications

The social implications arising from the end of Net Neutrality would be enormous. Without Net Neutrality, the Web could resemble cable TV, with the most popular content available only on certain tiers of coverage, or supplied through only certain providers. Freedom of speech would suffer, as bigger companies would dominate the Web much in the same way they do the airwaves and TV screens. Social progress would be damaged significantly due to the rich-poor divide being reinforced. Independent journalism would also be affected, as companies could theoretically block content that criticizes them or portrays them in a negative light. Similarly, the public’s ability to discover and exchange information related to booking a hotel, for example, or buying a car, may also be hampered.

What can be done?

According to FreePress, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler can still correct the agency’s past mistakes and truly protect America’s communications infrastructure. However, as noted by Michael Winship, the FCC has a long track record of spinning pro-industry positions to sound good for the consumer. Winship also warned that it’s too soon to tell which position Chairman Wheeler will side with, as he is, lest we forget, a former lobbyist for the mobile phone and cable TV industries.

What is certain however is that we need to make our voices heard. A great place to start is to tell the FCC to restore Net Neutrality by signing this petition. Take action today, spread the word about Net Neutrality, and don’t let the free and open Internet become a thing of the past.

FURTHER READING

PBS: Net Neutrality Explained

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