It’s called net neutrality, and depending on which of the talking heads you are listening to at the time it is an example of either a) corporate malfeasance at the highest level since the days of steel barons or b) the largest government intrusion into private business since FDR’s New Deal.
The scary part is that both sides are, at least in part, exactly right.
Let us begin by understanding some background. There is this thing called the Internet, and it is kind of a big deal. Most Americans have Internet delivered to their homes in little packets of data via a broadband Internet Service Provider, or ISP. These ISPs are, for the most part, large corporations whose names you know well: AT&T, Charter, Comcast, Time Warner, CenturyLink, etc. Currently, a consumer can be charged different sums of money for a different download speed, and many large Internet-based companies pay additional amounts in order to get their product delivered into homes at a different speed or with greater consistency.
The Internet, as it exists today, is not necessarily broken. Most of the country’s vitally important new companies are founded on its technological backbone. It is working, but now the government wants to get involved to “help.”
The Federal Communications Commission is currently considering a proposal to regulate the ISPs in a manner similar to how telephone companies are regulated today. The FCC believes this would guarantee the future of net neutrality.
Now, while their stated goal is to ensure the Internet remains “open,” they are less concerned about the process being open. The details of the proposal will not be available to the public until after the proposal is approved or denied.
You may have recently heard about Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, well, freaking out about this proposed plan, calling it President Obama’s “secret plan to regulate the Internet” and claiming it will lead to “billions of dollars in new taxes” levied against ISPs and Internet companies. Commissioner Pai does have one advantage over the rest of us citizens: He has actually been allowed to read the report. It also stands to reason that significant government regulation has, in the history of the world, never actually helped an industry continue to grow.
That being said, the corporations do not exactly have clean hands on this either. Opponents of regulation claim it would lead to decreased competition, but ISPs are not really competing today. Ninety-six percent of U.S. households have access to two or fewer broadband providers. U.S. consumers are paying a higher than average rate for lower than average download speeds as measured against the rest of the world. So from a competitive and performance standpoint, the ISPs are already acting like a highly regulated industry.
The regulation being proposed would essentially reclassify the ISPs so that they fall under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. We think it is reasonable to assume that, with as much as Congress had on their plate in 1934, they were likely unable to properly consider the implications of a technology that didn’t exist at the time and would not become common for another 60 years.
Thus, we are left in a position where we need to decide who we trust more: large corporations who are already clearly colluding in order to impact profits, or the federal government.
Actually, the above statement is not true. We are not in that position because we are not even allowed to read the proposal until after it passes or fails on Feb. 26. But here is something we can agree on: This is really, really important.
It is critical to the quality of life in this country that the Internet continues to be delivered in a fair, reasonable and accessible manner for all citizens.
It is clear that the process which this proposal is being put through is partisan and quite ridiculous. Here’s a likely scenario: Democrats have a 3-2 majority on the FCC commission, so this proposal is likely to pass. Next, House Republicans, who have a solid majority, will pass legislation barring the FCC from reclassifying under Title II. A filibuster in the Senate will probably hold up the bill, but even if it gets through the president is likely to veto. Next come the lawsuits, where the major ISPs will sue.
We know all of this today, and we also know that there is no amount of logic or reason that will change this inevitable process.
This is our government at work. These are our large corporations at work.
It is time that we demand a more reasonable discussion and a more reasonable process.
We need to make our voices heard.
Luckily, it is possible today to do exactly that. We can make our voices heard, thanks to the Internet.