You may have heard a lot of back and forth yesterday over the FCC’s new Net Neutrality order and wondered if it was a good thing or a bad thing or even wondered what the hell everyone was so up in arms about. Well, you wouldn’t be alone.
I spent half my day reading articles from the press that didn’t quite explain, in layman’s terms, what was the what, and the other half reading angry screeds from bloggers in the like about protecting “net neutrality.” It’s really enough to make your head spin.
So here’s my attempt to shed some light on exactly what’s going on.
This PBS News Hour video does a fairly comprehensive breakdown of the terms and issues surrounding the FCC and net neutrality. But, I acknowledge that not everybody wants to watch a seven-minute video, despite it’s quality.
So here’s the short version: there’s the internet that comes from data lines into your house or wirelessly and there’s the internet interface that you know and love, like Facebook, YouTube, blogs, Hulu, Pandora, porn, movie showtimes, etc.
The problem is that the companies providing data access are also companies in the content business. And both areas are worth billions of dollars. From the business standpoint, companies like Comcast want to provide you internet access and then steer you towards their content and advertising.
Net Neutrality advocates are worried that without regulation companies like Comcast would be allowed to slowdown data packets from Netflix or Hulu in favor of their own streaming video services.
“Local ISP’s should provide connection to the Internet but then it should be treated as though you own those wires and can choose what to do with them when and how you want to, as long as you don’t destruct them,” writes Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computers. “I don’t want to feel that whichever content supplier had the best government connections or paid the most money determined what I can watch and for how much. This is the monopolistic approach and not representative of a truly free market in the case of today’s Internet.”
If the FCC doesn’t protect the internet from mega-corporations who see no difference between access and content (only shareholder profit), neutrality advocates fear the internet could turn into a payola scheme, with whatever corporations or services can afford to keep their content fast and free the winners.
At least the FCC recognizes this concern. “A commercial arrangement between a broadband provider and a third party to directly or indirectly favor some traffic over other traffic in the connection to a subscriber of the broadband provider (i.e., ‘pay for priority’) would raise significant cause for concern,” the Commission said, because “pay for priority would represent a significant departure from historical and current practice.”
If the FCC does nothing, then the internet is left to the whims of the market and capitalism, which doesn’t always turn out in favor of the consumer. So they question then becomes, what rules did the FCC adopt and why are net neutrality advocates disappointed in the Obama administration?
The regulations ban content blocking and require transparency from ISPs. They also require network management and packet discrimination to be “reasonable,” but they exempt wireless broadband from all but the transparency and blocking rules.
The disappointment comes because the FCC didn’t do enough.
“Yes, it’s a step forward,” declared Harold Feld of Public Knowledge, “but hardly more than an incremental step beyond the Internet Policy Statement adopted by the previous Republican FCC. After such an enormous build up and tumultuous process, it is unsurprising that supporters of an open Internet are bitterly disappointed — particularly given the uncertainty over how the rules will be enforced.
We haven’t even touched upon wireless, which will be the next big issue, given the proliferation of always-connected-devices like the iPhone or Android, Windows Phone 7, etc. These devices are mobile phones, yes, but more than that they are tiny computers connected to the internet and content services. And the FCC demonstrated they have a lot to learn when it comes to wireless smartphones and were probably wise to leave that category alone for the time being.
The reason they chose not to tackle the wireless issue? Because Google’s Android OS is an open platform. Whatever the fuck that means. Any 15-year-old could tell you that Android’s open source mobile OS has nothing to do with net neutrality.
So where do we go from here? It seems to me the importance of connecting to the internet is as vital to our current society as having clean water, sewage, electricity, etc. Yes, I’m arguing that access to the internet should be lumped into same category as other public utilities.
What the American government should do is create two distinct categories for the internet, with access on one side and content on the other. Treat the access portion of the internet like a public utility. Make it affordable and accessible to all citizens, regulate it, and apply strict net neutrality principles to it. Let the market/capitalist side determine the evolution of the content side of thing. Seems like an obvious solution to a tangled problem.