For those of you who believe in an open internet in the United States, the fight is still on. For the moment, though, we can bask in the glory of the U.S. Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) 3-2 vote last week to impose so-called “net neutrality” rules on internet service providers (ISPs).
If you’re unsure what all that meant, you’re not alone. The concept of net neutrality is sometimes hard to wrap your brain around. Here’s some help from Vox.com, the “media explainer” news website:
“Network neutrality is the idea that ... ISPs should treat all internet traffic equally. It says your ISP shouldn’t be allowed to block or degrade access to certain websites or services, nor should it be allowed to set aside a ‘fast lane’ that allows content favored by the ISP to load more quickly than the rest.”
In other words, cable companies -- which more often than not are ISPs -- shouldn’t be allowed to, essentially, blackmail content providers like Netflix or Facebook to fork out gobs of money just so you can see movies or cat videos smoothly.
The biggest part of the FCC’s party-line vote (Democrat commissioners voted in favor, Republican commissioners against) is your access to the internet will now be treated the same as your access to electricity and telephone service: as a utility. This specifically affects broadband carriers, which means pretty much any ISP around these days. (Does anyone still use dial-up service?)
There are some, including the two Republican FCC commissioners, who see the reclassification of broadband ISPs into utilities as government overreach.
But let’s think about this for a minute. (And before I go on, may I say that I will be speaking primarily about the major or “super-regional” ISPs, not local ones which -- I believe -- follow a more small-town business culture.)
Most of the big cable companies I’ve dealt with, in Columbia; Memphis, Tenn.; and elsewhere completely rip-off their customers, in my opinion, and manage to provide pretty shoddy customer service. This is not a local problem. There has been a national outcry about the way major cable/ISP companies behave. Indeed, net neutrality “activists” have often pointed to ISP misbehavior of various kinds.
Here’s an example from former FCC official Barbara Cherry (to CBS News): she had digital subscriber line (DSL) service from AT&T and cable service from Comcast. She moved less than a mile away at a time when DSL was no longer a common service. When she asked, AT&T refused to sell her DSL service again, forcing her buy a cable service bundle she didn’t want.
An almost humorous look at what the internet would be like without net neutrality can be found at www.jointhefastlane.com. The website is a fake ISP portal “offering” customers -- you and me -- different bundles of high speed internet service in order to access content providers (“Soundify,” “MovieFlix” and “VideoTube”) who have paid to be on the ISP’s “fast lane,” with data speeds “up to 35x faster than non-priority sites.” It would funny parody if it weren’t so scary.
Net neutrality activists also highlighted the specter of cable/ISP monopolies -- especially when Comcast and Time Warner Cable looked to merge to become the country’s No. 1 media behemoth. For those of you who have been customers of either company, can you really imagine it would be good for internet users to have those two companies become one? I think not.
And, by the way, you’ll be happy (read: incensed) to know, about a year ago, The Verge (a Vox Media website), uncovered proof Comcast officials wrote a glowing endorsement of the proposed merger signed by Roswell, Ga., Mayor Jere Wood. In other words, they fabricated a letter making it look like the entire town, literally, loves Comcast and supported the merger.
The good news, the net neutrality activists won. This is a case where lobbying actually accomplished something good, at least for the meantime (I’ll get to that in a moment). The effort had a lot of star-power backing, from news satirists Jon Stewart and Jon Oliver to Star Trek actors George Takei and Wil Wheaton. In fact, Oliver’s brilliantly hilarious take on net neutrality included his urging viewers to flood the FCC website’s with as many pro-net neutrality comments as possible.
It worked; a few days later, the website’s comments section shut down after being hit with more than 45,000 comments. It was a beautiful example of those who believe in having a level playing field on the internet using their very access to the internet to make their collective voice heard loud and clear.
The FCC’s ruling marks the internet itself as a “common carrier.” That’s a term used to describe not just phone service, but railroads and even the post office.
What does this really mean to you? It means since Comcast won’t be able to force Netflix (as it did not long ago) to pony up extra money for “fast lane” service, Netflix won’t be forced to charge you more money to watch movies on your computer.
In addition, the new rules allow the FCC to deal with consumer and other complaints about ISP practices. The FCC will now have the authority to go after companies based on consumer complaints.
The fight’s not over, though. Some congressmen are drafting reversal legislation, and there’s bound to be lawsuits. So, write call representative, email the FCC and help keep net neutrality what it is now: the law of the land.