Debate Center: Federal court hits delete on FCC’s net neutrality rules
Illustration: Monte Wolverton
By Alex Culpepper
The Internet may be about to change. Back in January, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. ruled the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can no longer enforce network neutrality, often called “net neutrality.” Net neutrality requires Internet service providers to remain neutral by allowing users even access to all Web content. Before the ruling, Internet service providers could not interfere with the quality of access to that content, meaning, for example, they could not manipulate networks to allow easier access to one content provider in favor over another.
Verizon was the plaintiff in the January lawsuit. Its challenge was the FCC had specifically identified broadband Internet as different from telecommunications service, yet the FCC rules in place regulated Verizon as broadband Internet, rather than a telecommunications service. The judges agreed and found the FCC to be in violation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The FCC can appeal the decision, and it is free to draw up new rules for Internet service providers, as long as the rules do not violate another portion of the Telecommunications Act.
In the meantime, however, members of Congress have responded with the Open Internet Preservation Act, with the hopes of passing legislation to bring back the FCC net neutrality rules. Reports say the bill’s passing would be a challenge, though, because debate about the merits of net neutrality has been ongoing and is getting some renewed national attention.
Opponents of the court’s decision say this is bad news for a lot of people, and it threatens open, equal access to Internet content and even freedom of speech. They say without net neutrality, Internet service providers now have the law behind them if they want to block and slow access to Internet content for any number of reasons. Supporters say this also gives service providers a free pass to charge Internet content providers – such as Google and YouTube – extra for fast, reliable service to users. What this will do, they say, is force providers to pass along costs to users in the form of website access fees, so users will pay twice: once for the service and then again for access to websites. Opponents further say innovation and entrepreneurship will suffer because big content providers will do what big companies with deep pockets do – drive small business from the marketplace.
Supporters of the decision say the federal government had too much influence over the Internet under the old FCC rules, and regulation limits private investment and innovation. Another reason cited for deregulation of Internet traffic is some content providers account for huge amounts of bandwidth compared to other content providers, and service providers are solely covering the bill for bandwidth and other infrastructure. Supporters say it may be time to discuss a new business model based on shared cost. Representatives for Internet service providers have also added they have no desire to ruin a good thing, are committed to an open Internet and have no plans to block, or otherwise alter, open access to lawful content.
Speculation abounds about what will happen next as Internet service providers are free to experiment with new service arrangements. Most experts believe Internet content providers will feel the first effects, especially those who provide video. Opponents of the ruling have petitions and legislation out to fight the threat they see to free speech, innovation and equal and open Internet access. Supporters stand by the latest ruling because they see a deregulated Internet as the best and fairest situation for everyone.
Reach DCP forum moderator Alex Culpepper at AlexCulpepper@DaytonCityPaper.com
Debate Forum Question of the Week:
Should the Internet remain an open-sourced format as it was originally designed?
Debate Left: More than dollars at stake
By Michael Truax
Imagine the Internet. Consider all of your social activity, all of your work, all that you do that depends on a fast, reliable Internet connection.
Now saddle that with all of the creativity, efficiency, clarity and ethics of your local cable company.
Please stop screaming. The neighbors will hear you.
The summary of the net neutrality argument is this: The Internet, developed with public funds, built on a public infrastructure and home to economically critical services, is larger and more complex than the telecoms can imagine. The Internet is far more important to economic and social progress, to the democratic free exchange of ideas, than the telecom companies understand. No oligarchy should have the keys to such a critical piece of infrastructure. That’s doubly true for companies with the history and reputation of cable and phone carriers.
Net neutrality is no compromise. It’s the demand for free and indiscriminate access to the Internet.
The right to Internet access has been recognized at the international and national levels. What a private company, like a telecom provider, does can’t usually be considered a gross violation of rights. In this case, however, with state-granted regional monopolies, it should be considered such.
This is not simply the matter of the telecoms’ rights to operate how they see fit – an unlevel playing field threatens the free enterprise of a much larger, healthier economic system. Dot coms and startups could face a significant barrier to entry, slowing progress and entrenching current sites. Existing popular sites with a large bandwidth footprint – that’s almost all of them – would have another significant cost foisted upon them.
Without exaggeration, the Free Internet is at stake. Online innovation is at stake. And with that, one of America’s key economic advantages is at stake.
Consider these possibilities:
– Startups face low-tier service from telecom providers until they’re large enough to pay the toll for faster access. When the next photo-sharing site or social hub emerges, access will be choked.
– Cloud services – think Dropbox or Google applications – will be less convenient to use and difficult to maintain as “free.” They could be throttled to the point of irrelevance without a premium on top of standard fees for Internet connection.
– Pay per device. Each computer, tablet and phone can connect to the Internet through your wireless for only a small incremental fee! You even have one “guest” connection. What a deal.
– Instead of Netflix and Hulu, see fractionalized video services provided by Time Warner, Comcast, Verizon and others. Because they’re not worried about your subscription, they don’t support the service well. You don’t have much of a choice without paying a large service premium on top of monthly subscriptions. And since Netflix and Hulu were forced to pay a premium themselves for fast access to the telecom networks, expect changes in prices or offerings.
– Broadband carriers offer great deals on basic Internet connections, with premium, a la carte packages allowing full access to sports sites. Social media sites. Video streaming sites. Online gaming. Packages for anything, really, they could paywall and leverage. As a public service, they won’t meter and throttle .gov sites.
– Voice over IP and similar programs that compete directly with the telecoms’ phone services, at prices that keep the legacy services honest? Good luck with that.
– On the “back end” of the Internet, the telecoms could force services to their own web hosting and platforms for decent access to their networks. Instead of a free and open market for web hosting services, sites may rely on faster – yet more expensive – unsecure or unreliable services owned or in deals with telecom providers.
Opponents of net neutrality will often say the telecom providers have no intention of changing the structure of Internet access. That’s clearly bogus – if they didn’t want to make drastic changes, why would they fight so hard to take away the FCC’s ability to regulate it? In fact, a Verizon lawyer said in September, “but for these rules we would be exploring those types of arrangements.”
Net neutrality is not just about what already exists on the Internet. It’s not just about quality, unhindered access to YouTube, Facebook, Google applications, Netflix, Amazon, ESPN and business-critical web services. It’s about maintaining a level playing field for what comes next. Without a stable and open economic environment, innovators may choose not to start – or scale up – their projects. Those who do will be broadcasting to a fraction of the users they could reach on a free Internet.
Following last month’s ruling in a federal court, the telecoms are champing at the bit. They have an opportunity to extract a lot more from Internet users, while at the same time protecting their legacy services from online upstarts they just can’t control. Cord cutters – people who got sick of the rapidly inflating prices of cable television, and opted instead for a fast Internet connections and streaming video services – can expect a very different valuation without net neutrality.
The man who made all of this possible by classifying the Internet outside of the FCC’s regulatory reach in 2002, former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, is now the president and CEO of one of the largest lobbying groups promoting the interests of telecoms in Washington.
Without net neutrality, the Free Internet becomes a little less free, and it becomes a lot less of the Internet we know.
Michael Truax is a freelance writer, digital marketing consultant, entertainment enthusiast and bar trivia champion living in West Chester, Ohio. He can be reached at MichaelTruax@DaytonCityPaper.com.
Debate Right: Economics 101 solves net neutrality argument
The Internet, or World Wide Web, can be considered the undiscovered universe. The amount of information that has been put on the Web and continues to be placed on the Internet is essentially limitless. The majority of the content placed on the Internet is from private enterprises or individuals covering any topic imaginable.
A simple search on any Internet search engine can get you resources – information such as cooking recipes, weight loss tips, thousands of news websites, free online college courses, social contacts, personal blog pages, millions of product pages and much more.
Many do not know the origins of the Internet, unless you listen to former Vice President Al Gore, who claims to have invented it. However, the truth is a team of professors in the United Kingdom and U.S. invented the first “Internet” in the 1960s. Mainstream use of the Web started in the ’90s when personal computers with modems became more mainstream. Today, the Internet is the backbone of the world infrastructure for countries, business and life, for many.
More individuals have access to the Internet than ever before through free Wi-Fi spots and smartphones. The trend of people’s connectivity to the Internet continues to grow at a faster rate than anything in society. Many believe the Internet is a right and should be free for anyone. Others believe one should be required to pay for the Internet, due to the infrastructure and associated costs.
The issue came to a head when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a federal agency under the direction of the president, provided regulations, or “quasi-laws,” preventing providers of the Internet to manipulate networks modifying search results on content or access to it. These regulations provided for what has been deemed net neutrality. Net neutrality requires Internet service providers to remain neutral by allowing users even access to all Internet content.
To understand the net neutrality argument, you have to take the history of the Web into account and combine that with the delegation of authority from the U.S. Congress and simple economics. Under the U.S. Constitution, the legislative branch is charged with all law-making authority. Many question how federal agencies – an executive branch function under the direct authority of the president – make laws or regulations as they are named.
Recall the “School House Rock” presentation. Easy – Congress is allowed to “delegate” rule-making authority to federal agencies under the direction of the president. The only guidelines are Congress must give a broad framework for the federal agency to work from.
In the FCC and net neutrality situation, a simple solution is if Congress wants the net to be neutral, all they need to do is to provide the “framework” by passing a law stating such. Most likely, if Congress would pass a bill and if it were signed into law by the president, the courts would uphold it – if the law was not contrary to the U.S. Constitution.
In the case at hand, many Internet service providers claim the FCC has too much influence over the Web and, due to that reason, private investment has lagged for need of deregulation. Also, some Internet content providers are taking too much bandwidth resource on the Internet service providers and should be curtailed.
Ultimately, the two principles that will remain in the net neutrality argument is the framework in the hands of Congress and, again, simple economics. If the Internet truly is not deemed neutral, and Internet providers abuse their corporate power of “selling” the Web, Congress will act by giving the FCC proper tools to combat it as discussed before.
However, the strongest argument in “regulating” an industry is always economics. If an Internet service provider begins to restrict or pass costs on to content providers, then the consumer of that particular provider will shop for another provider that does not charge or is at a lower cost. Any time competition is within a fair market, prices go down and consumers go to the best quality at the lowest cost. This is what defines a free market economy.
A current example would be cell phone plans. Due to the competition for unlimited data, minutes and texting, most providers continue to lower their monthly plan costs and even now provide for no-contract plans. This was never an option before, until competition grew among cell phone companies for consumers of their service and product.
The same principle applies to the Internet and anyone who provides the Web to consumers. Currently, competition is already in the Internet service provider business. Most consumers in the U.S. can receive high-speed Internet from their cable or satellite TV provider, cell phone or regular landline phone provider and even through independent Internet providers.
The moment a consumer feels they can receive a better deal with greater access with other Internet providers, they will gravitate toward that service. This simple principle will prevent Internet providers from restricting any access to content on the Web and will keep the Internet an open-sourced format. Internet service providers are a business and they will act like a business under the direction of economics.
Rob Scott is a general practice attorney at Oldham & Deitering, LLC. Scott is a Kettering City Councilman and founder of the Dayton Tea Party. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.gemcitylaw.com.