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July 28, 2014
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editorial

An Internet open to all; The fight for net neutrality


Anyone who uses the Internet needs to understand that we are at a crossroads concerning an important matter regarding access to the web called “net neutrality.” At the heart of the issue is (a) whether the Internet will remain “neutral” in the future, i.e. free and open for everyone to use on equal footing, or (b) whether Internet broadband (wide bandwidth, high-speed transmission) service providers—massive telecommunications corporations like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon—will be able to charge higher prices to privileged customers who in turn will receive enhanced access on the Internet’s “information highway” while potentially relegating the rest of us to its slower lanes. Keep in mind that in many localities, these telecoms have a monopoly, with almost 75% of U.S. households having only one choice for Internet service.

The question now before us is: should high-speed Internet be treated more like a common carrier or more like an information service in which paying customers can have superior levels of access?

Under federal telecommunications law, your telephone company is a common carrier that simply transmits data (unchanged); no one user gets priority. Your phone company is regulated as a public utility. On the other hand, your cable TV company provides an information service and can treat you differently depending on how you use your TV, i.e. you pay extra to receive more channels, or premium channels, or to watch a movie on demand. In the realm of the Internet, companies like Amazon, Netflix, Facebook and Google provide information services.

Nearly two decades ago, Congress enacted the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (updating the Communications Act of 1934, which obviously was passed long before there was an Internet). The new law allowed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate Internet companies as information services, and indeed, the FCC currently classifies broadband providers—those providing DSL, cable and wireless broadband—that way.

Then in 2010, in response to complaints that some broadband service providers were “throttling,” i.e. slowing down some Internet traffic (www.macworld.com/article/1135381/comcast.html), the FCC issued an Open Internet Order (www.fcc.gov/openinternet) calling for net neutrality, stopping short, however, of defining broadband as providing common carrier services. Verizon challenged the FCC’s open Internet rules, and on January 14, 2014, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the commission’s Open Internet Order on the basis that the commission had exercised its authority inconsistently with its own prior decisions (classifying broadband as information services) and was now seeking to treat broadband providers more like common carriers. The court, however, did uphold the FCC’s authority to make rules governing broadband providers’ treatment of Internet traffic.

Two weeks ago, in response to the appeals court’s ruling, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said he would ask the commission to try again to write rules for net neutrality, and on February 19, 2014 the FCC asked for public comment on the issue. [Editor’s note: To comment, go to apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/upload/display?z=nvb8o and enter “14-28” as the “proceeding number.” In the “details” sub-section, “type of filing” box, all you need is the word “COMMENT;” leave the other boxes in that section blank.] The deadline for public comment is March 18.

We at The River Reporter believe that without net neutrality the Verizons, AT&Ts and Comcasts of the world will give preferential treatment to the Amazons, Netflix, Facebooks and Googles of the world, relegating the rest of us—small and startup websites, underfunded non-profit organizations’ websites, those using peer-to-peer (P2P) communications and all of us users—to the slow lanes on the high-speed Internet highway.

This week, we plan to submit a comment to the FCC, and we urge our readers to do the same. We will ask the commissioners to stand up for all consumers of Internet information by writing new rules that, while addressing the appeals court’s concerns, will save net neutrality. The FCC, which has the power to revisit and reconsider its prior decisions, must assert its rightful authority over our nation’s communications infrastructure. Short of reclassifying broadband as a common carrier, the FCC must impose non-discrimination and anti-blocking regulations under the authority it already has.

Modern life depends on the Internet, making it an indispensable part of the information commons. In the world of business, unfettered access to high-speed Internet is essential for preserving competition and innovation in the marketplace. As an information-consuming society, this access also is essential for democracy and for our freedom of expression (even, or perhaps especially, for dissenting voices). If all web users do not have first-class access to the fast lanes of the information highway, we risk being relegated to second-class citizens. We urge every Internet user to speak up for net neutrality.