When the FCC put up its milquetoast Net neutrality rules in 2010, I forecast that it would be at best ineffective, and at worst damaging, to the Internet in the United States. I appear to have been correct on both counts. Those rules were thrown out by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in January of this year because, way back in 2002, the FCC opted to classify ISPs as “information services,” not “telecommunication services.”
As information services, the court ruled, ISPs were exempt from the FCC’s regulations. No sooner had the FCC’s Net neutrality rules lost their teeth, then the big ISPs began playing fast and loose with their interconnects to artificially constrain their networks in order to extort money from Netflix. In short order, the worst of my predictions quickly became reality. One prediction I definitely didn’t make: We’d be faced with the threat of Comcast and Time Warner Cable merging to form the worst company that ever existed.
In the middle are the people in the United States who rely on the Internet daily for work, play, communication, education, innovation, experimentation, and everything else it can deliver. The unfortunate part is that while the technological reasoning behind an open Internet is incontrovertible and unassailable, the political positioning is all over the map. Recent polls show that the vast majority of Americans across the political spectrum — including an overwhelming number of conservatives — are in favor of Net neutrality as long as they are asked about the specific issues related to the concept. But because of propaganda painting Net neutrality as literally the opposite of what it actually is, if the questions use the term “Net neutrality,” quite different answers are given.
For example, if you ask someone if their ISP should be able to choose which websites they can and cannot access based on whether those websites have paid the ISP enough, the overwhelming answer is “No, that’s not right.” However, if you ask someone who has lapped up the opposition’s talking points if they are in favor of “Net neutrality,” they’ll say no, because it’s some kind of attempt by the government to take over the Internet.
I’ve seen statements in the comments section of this column that defy logic, such as the chestnut about how Net neutrality will lead us back to the bad old days when you had to rent your phone from AT&T and long-distance calls cost a fortune. In reality, upon the breakup of AT&T, you could suddenly buy your own phone and pay dramatically less for long distance because there was finally competition in the market. The end of AT&T’s monopoly was crucial to the development of consumer Internet access in the first place — there’s no Internet as we know it without that event.
Oh, and if you didn’t realize it, massive numbers of Americans currently rent their cable boxes and pay hugely inflated monthly sums for mediocre broadband access. Thus, the “bad old days” argument is literally an argument for Title II reclassification.
This is where the debate stands. On one side you have the commonsense belief that, exactly like other critical infrastructure in the United States, the Internet should remain open and unimpeded by the monopolies and duopolies that currently control consumer Internet access. The playing field must remain level. On the other side, you have a loud, wealthy, and very small contingent trying to control the Internet via blatantly monopolistic practices — and muddying the waters by throwing big money at politicians on both sides of the aisle, as well as working tirelessly and often underhandedly to convince us that a closed Internet is in our best interests.
Naturally, Net neutrality has become a huge political football. But while President Obama advocates for reclassifying ISPs as Title II common carriers, and prominent Republicans such as Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. John Boehner are opposed, this isn’t a red-or-blue issue. This transcends party affiliation quite clearly. This isn’t about “big government” or heavy regulations, taxes, or any of the boogeymen that scare conservatives. This isn’t about government takeovers of private infrastructure.
If you still believe that, I urge you to read this article by James J. Heaney. He goes into great detail about why he, as a staunch conservative, is thoroughly behind the reclassification of ISPs as Title II common carriers. Where there is no competition, there are monopolistic practices. Where there are monopolistic practices, there are major problems, which are evident all around us today and only getting worse.
The fact is that we are in a situation that we never should have found ourselves in. The FCC failed us in 2002 when it originally classified ISPs as information services, and it failed us again in 2010 with a weak and ineffective Open Internet order that merely kicked the can down the road for a few more years.
Now the FCC has a third chance to get this right and ensure that the Internet remains open for all. There can be no compromise or Section 706 equivocation. The ISPs need to be reclassified as Title II common carriers. This is not a partisan issue — this is common sense. There is no substantive argument against reclassification — there is only noise and deflection by the ISPs themselves. We should never have allowed them to get this big and powerful to begin with, but we need to vanquish this national threat once and for all.