As a campaigner, Barack Obama forcefully promised to preserve so-called net-neutrality rules on Internet service providers. Now he’s letting his FCC chairman quietly re-write the industry’s rules.
As president, he appears to be caving in to the telecommunications industry and breaking that promise, which probably means we’re about to start seeing changes in the way the Internet functions that could diminish the qualities that have made it such a disruptive and consumer-friendly communications tool.
Net neutrality is shorthand for rules that prevent Internet service providers (ISPs) from discriminating against web content they don’t like on their networks — or allowing some web content providers to pay for priority delivery to subscribers on a cyber fast lane.
Such rules have essentially been in place since the dawn of the Internet, and they seem to have worked pretty well. Last January, however, the D.C. Circuit struck them down in a case brought by the telecom industry, ruling that Obama’s FCC doesn’t currently have the authority to enforce net neutrality rules on ISPs. To gain that authority, the FCC would have to adopt a more aggressive regulatory approach toward these companies, and the commission’s recent actions are a telltale sign that it doesn’t plan on taking that step.
Specifically, imposing and enforcing real net-neutrality rules on the telecom industry would require the FCC to reclassify broadband giants like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon as utility services, or “common carriers,” under federal law — Title II of the 1934 Communications Act — as opposed to their current status as “information services,” which limits the commission’s regulatory authority over them.
The industry, well-known for its heavy campaign spending and political heft in Washington D.C., opposes such a move, of course. Last week, Obama’s FCC signaled opposition as well with a new rules proposal, but it lamely invited public comment on the issue and said it would consider reclassification — as if there hasn’t been more than enough time spent and public comments made on this subject already.
In his first term, Obama appointed as FCC commissioner an attorney and digital-media entrepreneur, Julius Genachowski, who sought to reclassify broadband providers under Title II in order to pursue net-neutrality regulation. Genachowski got rolled by the industry on that. He eventually gave up on reclassification and left the post in early 2013 to ultimately join the Carlyle Group, a private-equity titan known for its roster of Beltway insiders.
Next up in the revolving door, Obama appointed the current FCC commissioner, Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the telecommunications industry who had served as president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), a group that’s now leading the industry’s opposition to reclassification. He had also raised substantial amounts of money for both Obama’s presidential campaigns, which probably helped.
Does this sound like a guy who is likely to work toward preserving net neutrality? I think not.
Sure enough, news leaked in late April that Wheeler was planning to come out with a new proposal for broadband regulation that would enable paid prioritization of web content, which would make it easier for large, established companies with deep pockets to purchase access to a fast lane on broadband networks, giving their content a big advantage over the rest of the content on the web. This provoked a backlash of public outcry, media criticism and public opposition from former FCC commissioners and tech industry giants, including Google, Facebook, Netflix and Twitter.
That put Wheeler and the FCC on the defensive, and the proposal that finally became public last week reads like a paean to net neutrality, or their preferred term, an “open Internet.”
“The prospect of a gatekeeper choosing winners and losers on the Internet is unacceptable,” said Wheeler in a statement accompanying the new proposal, adding, “I understand this issue in my bones.”
The proposal itself is a monument to euphemism, long-winded legalese, subterfuge, prevarication and empty platitudes. It appears to a casual reader that the proposal is an impassioned defense of “a free and open Internet,” whatever that means, and a call to action on net neutrality. But professional FCC watchers report that various passages from the proposal confirm a shift toward a looser definition of net neutrality that allows for paid prioritization of content, confirming the early reports and the resulting controversy .
It’s a shame that the FCC seems unable to acknowledge this important shift to the public in plain English and explain the reason for it. This inability fuels my suspicion that Wheeler is really an industry tool that has been put in place at the FCC to reward campaign donors and further the interests of the very industry he is charged with regulating while taking pains to craft a public perception that the administration remains true to Obama’s campaign pledges to uphold net neutrality.
Many in the media love to dismiss net neutrality as an issue that makes people’s eyes glaze over, and it’s true that it is a bit wonky, especially for people who are uncomfortable with the Internet and digital technologies. But for many, particularly young people who grew up with the Internet and are enthusiastic about its possibilities, this is an issue about freedom of speech and expression, and preserving some semblance of a level playing field for businesses in the digital age.
Meanwhile, it would be a shame to allow this issue to be consumed by the empty-headed, ideological rhetoric of left vs. right — government action vs. laissez faire — that dominates the Beltway and cable news. The Internet, which has basically had net neutrality in place since it began, is becoming the dominant platform for communications and commerce for most Americans. It’s delivered on publicly owned property — telephone poles and the wirelines they support — and it’s clearly a utility service that comes into people’s homes to deliver information that is a basic necessity for functioning in our society, getting a job, keeping a job, buying health-care insurance, etc.
The idea that ISPs would be regulated by the FCC as the utilities that they are should not be a controversial or a partisan idea. It’s simple common sense.
[by Nat Worden, writing for MARKETWATCH]
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NORM ‘n’ AL, Minneapolis