Today the chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, announced a plan to ensure net neutrality by embracing Title II and regulating broadband providers under “common carrier rules.” This is great news and everyone who cares about the well-being and independence of the internet is very excited about it. But what the hell does any of that mean? Let me break it down for you:
Who: Who is a question I usually reserve for pictures of Rita Ora but in this case the “who” involved is the FCC, or Federal Communications Commission. That’s the agency responsible for regulating, among many other things, the companies that provide the broadband internet service that keeps us all in business. The FCC, headed by former lobbyist Tom Wheeler, has been holding meetings for several years to determine its position in “net neutrality.” Much of the controversy surrounding this issue has focused on Wheeler himself, who spent the bulk of his career as a lobbyist working for the very industry he was now responsible for regulating. That’s one reason many were surprised when Wheeler laid out his pro-net neutrality position in an op-ed for Wired magazine. Instead of looking back on his time as an industry lobbyist, Wheeler called back to his early earlier career as the founder of an internet start-up. That brings us to…
What: Net neutrality is the principle that the internet should be neutral when it comes to content. Without net neutrality internet service providers would be able to discriminate against or charge more for different types of content. In a world without net neutrality, your internet bill would look a lot more like a cable bill, with different services separated into tiers depending on how popular they were. The lowest tier might contain things like Weather.com and those old-timey message boards where people post questions about lawn care. To get to the good stuff like YouTube, Netflix, and NMR you would likely have to spring for a more expensive internet package, meaning that the best parts of the internet would be off limits to people who couldn’t afford them, but…
Why: …is that a big deal? Without net neutrality not only would you end up having to pay for the privilege of seeing the best stuff on the internet, but internet service providers could force content creators to pay in order to reach you. In today’s world, a big wealthy company like YouTube or Netflix could afford to pay ISPs to make their content available to more people, but a new startup wouldn’t be able to compete. That might sound okay now, but just ten years ago YouTube was an ambitious new startup. If we hadn’t had a neutral internet back then, YouTube wouldn’t exist today and our future favorite websites might not exist tomorrow.
The other reason net neutrality is important is that without it internet service providers could discriminate against content they don’t like. Last summer a recording of a Comcast employee hassling a customer showed up all over the web. Comcast was embarrassed and was forced to apologize and change its customer service practices. Comcast is one of the country’s largest internet service providers, and the website that published that recording probably would have thought twice if Comcast had the power to banish them to the most expensive circle of internet Hell.
How: …will this latest FCC position actually change things? The FCC is relying on Title II of the Federal Communications Act, a law that was established in 1934, before the internet was even a dream. Title II gave the government the right to regulate and set the rates for traditional phone service. Phone providers were considered “common carriers,” meaning that the service they provided necessity of modern life and needed to be accessible to everyone, not merely to the very wealthy. The broadband industry says that this 81 year old law is outdated and doesn’t apply to the modern world, but it’s hard to argue that the internet isn’t a necessity of modern life.
The rule lets the government set the rates for broadband service, so in theory it should stop the internet service providers from arbitrarily screwing us over for fun and profit. That’s the beauty of this decision: as long as it’s upheld by the courts, things should stay pretty much the same. Cable companies will still make billions of dollars every year for the valuable service they provide, but they won’t be able to stifle innovation, censor what we read and watch, and charge exorbitant rates for the service we’ve come to expect.
When: Now is the time if you’re planning to make your voice heard on net neutrality. Activists have successfully lobbied the FCC into a pro-net neutrality position, but now that commissions ruling will face pressure from legislators and the courts. The issue isn’t likely to be fully settled for some years, but the time to make your voice heard is now. One last push, whether by reaching out to your elected representative or voting with your dollars by supporting companies who support net neutrality, is what’s needed to ensure a free and independent internet for the future.