“…I’m asking the FCC to reclassify Internet service under Title II of a law known as the Telecommunications Act. In plain English, I’m asking them to recognize that, for most Americans, the Internet has become an essential part of everyday communication and everyday life…Americans are making their voices heard and standing up for the principles that make the Internet a powerful force for change. As long as I’m president, that’s what I’ll be fighting for too.”
With these straight forward words, President Barack Obama put himself square in the middle of the ongoing debate over net neutrality—the principle that all data on the Internet should be treated equally no matter its source or its end point. While candidate Obama made strong statements regarding his support for net neutrality, his administration has been less than effective in implementing policies that work for Internet users in the face of stiff opposition from both Republicans and Internet Service Providers (ISPs). After a federal appeals court struck down key parts of the FCC’s initial net neutrality regulations (the Open Internet Order) in Verizon v. FCC, the agency issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking public comment on a modified plan for action. President Obama’s remarks can only be fully appreciated as a response to these proposed rules, which have been widely criticized as not going far enough to restore the FCC’s full legal authority over ISPs. The criticism was loud and clear during the comment period that lasted through the summer months (remember the Internet Slowdown on September 10?). Citizens and interest groups filed nearly 4 million comments on the proposed rules, many spurred by several online campaigns organized by Internet companies in support of stronger regulations and more than 100,000 people signed a petition on Whitehouse.gov calling for President Obama to request Title II reclassification for ISPs. In short, the stakes are high and people are paying attention. If you like the Internet the way it is, you should be too.
There’s a lot of misinformation available about net neutrality. For some, it’s nothing more than “Obamacare for the Internet” (whatever that means) or another example of government over-reach stifling innovation. But the truth of the matter is that net neutrality is a foundational principle to keep the Internet open for all companies providing services—no matter their size, market or financial advantages—and for all end users enjoying those services. Net neutrality isn’t some far-out solution to a theoretical problem that might impact Internet users in the future. Good empirical evidence exists that ISP’s are manipulating Internet traffic at strategic interconnection points, likely in order to gain leverage over others in the tangled and often opaque market of moving bits around the Internet. The end result is deals like the one between Netflix and Comcast where, for the first time, an ISP charged a content provider for access to the end users, creating a “fast lane” for Netflix traffic. Netflix may be able to afford the extra cash (though they may not like it), but what about the next start up that could come along and revolutionize content delivery over the Internet? Google and Facebook might have been snuffed out of existence if they were forced to pay extra money to Comcast and Verizon in order to reach their users. With concentration in the ISP market only increasing, deals like this are the likely future of the Internet in the US without a change of course.
Reclassifying Internet services under Title II of the Telecommunications Act—which would give the FCC its full legal authority to regulate ISPs as “common carriers,” like telephone services, tasked with routing information from point a to b without modification—is just one of the possible solutions. Ultimately, as communication law expert Susan Crawford [1. Anyone interested in this subject should look up Susan Crawford’s work. Captive Audience, her 2013 book on the history and current state of the telecommunications market, is particularly relevant here. It gives a clear rundown of consolidation in the cable and Internet markets, focusing in particular on how Comcast has grown into a market dominating force and chronicling how the company (and its peers) leverages this influence for political gain.] points out, net neutrality is a market competition issue. Municipal fiber optic networks run like local utilities have been successful in several markets around the U.S., and more cities are fighting for the right to set up these networks in an attempt to break the prevailing ISP monopoly. These municipal networks offer some of the fastest and most affordable Internet services in the world but, due largely to incumbent lobbying and monopolist rent seeking, few Americans get to enjoy this world-class level of service.
The FCC is an independent agency and there is no guarantee that the president’s words will lead to concrete action, but net neutrality advocates and communication policy experts are taking notice. As Tim Wu, the Columbia Law professor who coined the term “net neutrality” in the early 2000’s, wrote: “After the President’s statement, it is hard to imagine that the commission can hold out forever and do nothing at all. If it does, the F.C.C. will be remembered as the agency that presided over the closing of the open Internet.”