Ever since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit effectively struck down the notion of ‘net neutrality’ in January this year, an increasingly bitter fight has been waged over whether ISPs should have the right to create a multispeed internet.
For consumers this is a terrible idea. By allowing ISPs to charge companies for prioritizing their traffic, discriminating against or even blocked services they don’t like, such as those offered by rivals companies, or on moral or religious grounds (many US ISPs have a very right-wing agenda), or offering customers ‘cable-style’ internet packages where full unrestricted access to the internet is only available to those who can afford the most expensive ‘package’, ISPs will be able to ramp up their profits at the expense innovation, diversity, and the uniquely democratic nature of the internet.
Big money will basically be allowed, as ever, to stamp roughshod over the interests of the common people, and the organization whose job it is to prevent just this kind of thing from happening, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has done its best to look the other way and counter-intuitively (and oxymoronically) propose ways of maintaining ‘net neutrality’ by creating a multi-lane internet.
This is not entirely surprising, as the FCC’s newly appointed chairman is Tom Wheeler, long time lobbyist for and friend of the telecoms industry (the ISPs). Somewhat ironically, Wheeler is an Obama administration appointee.
Wheeler’s ‘net neutrality’ proposals (which are anything but), have received a remarkable amount of attention from the general public, and the 60 day public consultation had to be extended after an unprecedented four million respondents (the vast majority of whom opposed the FCC’s proposals) caused the FFC’s website to crash twice.
Despite this, Wheeler has appeared determined to push on and introduce rules that will effectively end net neutrality in the United States (something that would undoubtedly have grave repercussions throughout the rest of the world). His latest ‘hybrid’ proposal, for example, still falls well short of guaranteeing net neutrality,
‘The plan now under consideration would separate broadband into two distinct services: a retail one, in which consumers would pay broadband providers for Internet access; and a back-end one, in which broadband providers serve as the conduit for websites to distribute content. The FCC would then classify the back-end service as a common carrier, giving the agency the ability to police any deals between content companies and broadband providers.’
In other words, a tiered ‘backend service, but with stricter rules intended to protect customers.
Given that Wheeler was an Obama appointee, it is therefore with some surprise that on Monday President Obama came out unequivocally supporting the notion net neutrality, and urging what every concerned onlooker has been baffled and frustrated by the FCCs refusal to do all along – to do its job and reclassify broadband services (without reservation) as ‘common carriers’ under Title II of the Communications Act.
This make them responsible under the provisions of the 2010 FCC Open Internet Order, a piece of legislation aimed at guaranteeing net neutrality (but which even so did not go as far as campaigners had hoped for).
(Note the little ‘buffering’ animation joke at the beginning of the video )
‘The rules I am asking for are simple, common-sense steps that reflect the Internet you and I use every day, and that some ISPs already observe.
- No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player—not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP—gets a fair shot at your business.
- No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others — through a process often called “throttling” — based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.
- Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.
- No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.’
Unfortunately, as Obama makes clear in is televised speech, he has no direct control over the FCC’s decision-making process,
‘The FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately this decision is theirs alone.’
Obama’s position to influence the issue will be further weakened by his electoral drubbing at the Midterm elections last week. Nevertheless, the move has been welcomed by net neutrality campaigners everywhere, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Corynne McSherry saying that,
‘This is an important moment in the fight for the open Internet. President Obama has chosen to stand with the us: the users, the innovators, the creators who depend on an open internet.’
Unsurprisingly, America’s major telecoms and cable companies (and their Republican supporters) have reacted with anger over the Whitehouse statement. Senator Ted Cruz, for example, Tweeted that,
‘“Net Neutrality” is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.’
What is certain is that the fight is far from over, but given that despite massive popular opposition, the ISPs have appeared have had the upper hand until now, Obama’s support for net neutrality could provide a desperately needed shot in the arm in the struggle against corporate profits over innovation and fairness…