Reflections on Net Neutrality
Published March 2, 2015
Last week, on Thursday 2/26/2015, the FCC did what in February of 2014 seemed impossible. They declared the Internet protected under Title II of the Communications Act. This is absolutely huge and since Matt and I have been big supporters of the idea of Title II for quite a while now, I thought it was worth jotting down a few reflections on this. But first... here's some of the awesome John Oliver, laying it down on net neutrality...
What is Title II?
Title II establishes communication services as “common carrier”, which means that the provider is responsible for transporting all traffic of that communication without discrimination or interference and for all users of the service.
In the 1990s, when the Internet first started becoming huge, its biggest strength when going up against the proprietary networks of the time (AOL, Prodigy, CompuServe) was that it served everyone equally. There were tons of smaller Internet Service Providers, and eventually those proprietary networks connected themselves to the Internet as well. The “vast open playground” of the Internet won out over those proprietary networks. In a sense, that kind of Internet was set up along a common carrier model. Your ISP didn’t care whether you used Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer or the original Mosaic browser, and it didn't care what sites or services you visited online. Hell, my first Internet browsing was done via a terminal session into a Linux host on an Apple IIGS client machine using Lynx (all text, no graphics or multimedia).
Back then, when people talked about the Internet, it was understood as a level playing field. But starting in the 2000s, with an overly friendly to telecom/cable FCC, that started to change. As people switched to cable modems and DSL, the Internet was no longer an equitable network (where your client had just as much bandwidth as the other systems on the network). It became asynchronous… your download speed was greater than your upload speed. And because of that, we started to see a shift.
A Creative Explosion
One of the great things about the early Internet was how everyone that got on it became an active participant. There was an explosion of personal websites. People became creators. You can still see that in a lot of the user-generated content on the Internet. The difference now is that it’s channeled into corporate-owned portals and services. And for a lot of people, they’re just observers online…
I get that not everyone wants to be a creator. It’s a lot of work and takes a lot of energy. And that’s fine really. But as this shift has happened, it’s become more difficult to do that leaning forward, to become a creator. As things get channeled into corporate-owned portals, they get “monetized”, and the preferential treatment starts.
That’s been going on for a while now, thanks to the earlier incarnations of the FCC. Some people have called it the “cable-fication” of the Internet, modelling the way the Internet works as more like cable where people passively view content, just with vastly more “channels.”
What’s more, that shift has the potential to lock us into the present at the expense of the future. The thing about the big telecom and cable companies is that they’re quite happy to stay with the status quo, simply collecting rent from the viewers on one side and content folks on the other. If they could get away with it, they would NEVER upgrade their networks, because doing that cuts into profits. And we’re talking about companies that are making BILLIONS in profit. Don’t believe me? Take a quick Google tour of their annual reports. As publicly traded companies, they have to publish that.
I worked for AT&T for almost 11 years and got to hear plenty of their perspective, about their network is all about service to their users. And yet, in all of that talk, not once do they recognize the only reason they even have that network is because the government gave them the monopoly right to run their lines across everyone’s property in return for providing universal service. That’s because the government recognized the true reality of networks… that each additional person that’s connected to that network increases its value EXPONENTIALLY. A network that reaches literally everyone on the planet has almost infinite value. AT&T, and the others like Verizon and Comcast, have all forgotten this simple truth in their pursuit of profits. They believe they have the right to extract as much value as they can out of that network, even when it works against the interest of the network itself.
By classifying the Internet as Title II, the FCC just made an enormous step to restoring the balance. I absolutely applaud FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler for this ambitious plan. At first Wheeler appeared on every level to be just another telecom/cable shill in a long line of FCC Chairmen who join the revolving door between those companies and the FCC. This is a very independent and forward-thinking move for someone with his background.
But this is just the first step in a very very long walk. The fight isn’t over, because the basic attitude in those companies persists. Of course, they’re going to sue again. Verizon did it last time, and they have only themselves to blame that this time the FCC brought a gun to a gun fight, rather than the squirt guns they’ve had previously. Based on those previous court decisions, the FCC is on very firm legal ground with their Title II position (for a change). Congress is already making noise, particularly among those funded by the telecom/cable companies, of acting to restrict the FCC.
So the fight isn’t over… but it’s still a huge victory. It’s nice to see for once. I for one want to see the blazing fast Internet of the future. I’d like to see real-time full sensory data streamed at gigabits per second. And that’s exactly the future we won’t get if these companies get their way. Over the last decade, the US has been falling behind. Our Internet is getting slower compared to other, more forward-thinking countries, and it’s staying more expensive for what we do get. Let’s all do what we can to ensure that this decision means that changes.
One last note… the FCC also decided on Thursday that state laws against municipal broadband are illegal. Of the two decisions, that may end up being even more impactful. Personally I’m planning on getting involved, to try and get my local city to put in a municipal broadband network. In an ideal world, companies that have treated their customers like Comcast and Verizon (and AT&T) would quickly go out of business because of competitive alternatives. I think municipal broadband can help. That’s a future I can’t wait to see…