Some poor guy knocked on my Brooklyn apartment door the other day shilling for a competing cable-Internet-phone company. He was just an ordinary guy with a clipboard, a spiel and an off-the-boat accent like mine (when I use it). But when he said “deal,” that set me off.
“Deal? What deal? Internet connections in the U.S. are slower and more expensive than in Asia or Europe. Why is that?!” He said, “package.” I said “Package?! You mean like me paying extra for a home phone line I don’t want or use and y’all acting like I’m getting a two-fer?”
By now, my fellow immigrant’s clutching his clipboard to his chest and sidling away to my neighbor’s door saying, “I don’t get into the politics of it all.” I felt bad when I closed my door; dude was just doing his job. But the price to communicate, like rent, is too damn high. Every month it’s hard not to catch feelings.
That’s why the FCC’s big vote on net neutrality today matters. On one hand, it’s one more skirmish in a decade-long war over whether to keep the Internet as is: open. (Watch John Oliver for players and stakes.) On the other hand, I’m slightly paranoid and thinking these corporate and government suits are fighting over how many extra lines they can someday add to my itemized bill. Here’s an overview of where we are:
We may think of the Internet like a public utility but it isn’t; that could begin to change today.
After a nudge from President Obama, FCC chair Tom Wheeler’s expected to move the Internet a big step closer to regulating it like water or electricity. The big deal is ownership. The FCC could establish the premise that the Internet is an essential good and therefore, first and foremost belongs to the public rather than the free market.
Technically, the whole thing’s called Title II regulation, referring to a section of the 1934 Telecommunications Act. Specifically, its language forbids discrimination of the sort that a coalition of media activists and tech companies are warning against: the creation of pricey fast lanes for rich customers and slow lanes for the rest of us. “Pay-to-play prioritization would absolutely raise customer bills,” says Malkia Cyril, founding director of the Center for Media Justice. “[Maintaining] net neutrality prevents that.”
Title II regulation could keep the Internet open for the next breakout YouTube hit.
“Do you want a blog like Racialicious or a webisode series like “Black Folk Don’t” to reach you under the same terms as news and video provided by your broadband company?” asks American University communications professor Patricia Aufderheide. (Comcast, for example, provides broadband and it owns content creator, NBC Universal.) “Do you want a black entrepreneur to have the same ability to start a web-based business as one the broadband company has equity in? Then you want the company providing broadband to have to offer it on the same terms to every end user and treat all the content coming to it with the same terms.” Title II gives the FCC more control over behemoth companies that not only own content but the delivery system, too.
But Title II was written long before the Internet was a thought. Can it keep the Internet open?
“It’s complicated,” Lewis Friedland, founding director of the Center for Communication and Democracy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tells me by e-mail. “In an ideal world we’d construct a new way of regulating an open internet, taking the best from what is known as [Title II] and combining it with some new forms of regulation,” he says. But he’s a realist: “No new regulation is going to make it through Congress,” he says. Title II appears to be the best shot of keeping the Internet open and accessible on equal terms.
But even if the FCC votes yes for Title II, Cyril is prepping for new battles. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the Washington Post reports, is pursuing a GOP net neutrality bill, described as an alternative to Chairman Wheeler’s proposal. “[Broadband providers] are threatening to sue. And legacy civil rights groups may step back into the fray as opponents,” says Cyril, a Panther baby who’s been organizing around access and representation for people of color since she was 15. “Just as we fought for the vote [during Jim Crow], we fight for our voice now.”
Can Title II lower any future bills?
No, not directly. What it can do, Aufderheide says, is, “make it more likely that competition of services provided over broadband can benefit startups and entrepreneurs who do not have the provider’s blessing or input.”
Why not just trust broadband providers to maintain net neutrality without government regulation?
“We have a long history of seeing what happens when companies are not all forced to agree to the same rules of play; it puts the most disreputable of them in an advantaged position. And then it’s a race to the bottom,” Aufderheide says. “That’s why we got common carriage [or, Title II] in the first place, and USDA meat inspection and requirements for standards in milk and so on.”