Web Rules and Regulations

Warning: Your Right To a Free and Open Internet is at Risk

Posted on December 19, 2010. Filed under: Web Rules and Regulations | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

road with cones blocking both sidesDo you enjoy surfing the web and being able to hop onto any site you please?

How would you feel if your internet service provider limited the websites you could get to, or charged you extra to do things like watch a video and send an instant message?

Well, there’s been talk about how companies that provide internet connectivity are now looking to limit what you can access online.

This topic will soon be dealt with at a meeting by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. This week, the FCC is scheduled to vote on net neutrality, a thorny topic that’s getting pricklier by the day.

I spoke with Rachel Colyer of the Media and Democracy Coalition about net neutrality. She explained why her organization is advocating for an open internet.

A conversation about net neutrality

Many people don’t know about net neutrality. What does this term mean?

Net neutrality principles are sort of these rules of the road to protect an open internet. The open internet is the way the internet currently operates. When a user goes online they are free to access the web the way that they choose to. There aren’t gatekeepers. Once you pay for your access you can go wherever you want. You have the right to explore things within the law.

If you want to watch video, or you want to upload a video to YouTube, or you want to surf the web, or you want to shop — you control the experience. And that’s what we want to protect… Net neutrality rules would say internet service providers can’t discriminate against websites or applications. So they would carry Hulu as equally as they would carry Netflix. Or they would carry Amazon as equally as they would carry eBay. Or they would carry Yankee Candle equal to a small business company. That’s the idea — that there is this equal access.

What would be different if we didn’t have net neutrality?

It could create this very unlevel playing field. Internet service providers could potentially speed up access to companies that they have a deal with. Or companies that they own.

computer with brick wall around itFor instance Comcast, the largest internet service provider, is currently trying to merge with NBC Universal, which also owns Hulu. We can anticipate that they would want to prioritize their Hulu service over Netflix or YouTube. So this is one real danger we can anticipate.

We have seen some pushing the boundaries on this role. Comcast decided it wasn’t going to carry files from BitTorrent and it was dropping transfers between BitTorrent… The FCC stepped in and said “Hey, you can’t do that,” and fined Comcast.

Comcast took the FCC to court and said “You actually don’t have the authority to fine us on that.” And the court ruled that the FCC, as the rule is written, does not have the authority to regulate broadband.

The FCC under a previous chairman classified the internet as Title I, which is an ancillary service. The way they classified the internet essentially deregulated it. This has created a situation where we need some rules. Someone needs to have authority. The FCC is the best agency to do that. If they were to classify the internet under Title II, as a telecommunications service, which we think there is a fair case to be made, the FCC would have very clear authority to be a watchdog on the internet.

We want to make sure there are strong non-discrimination rules in place. So this unlevel playing field can’t be created.

What is happening now with the FCC?

The FCC has been taking comments for over a year now and it has put the open internet principles on the December agenda. On Dec 22 there is going to be an order that would enshrine open internet principles. Between now and December 21 we have an opportunity to push to strengthen these rules. To advocate on behalf of the public interest to shape those rules before they come up for a vote.

What about Comcast’s claim that the FCC does not have the authority to regulate the internet?

We think Title II is cut and dry. We’re concerned that anything not based on Title II is going to be a court battle. My understanding of it is the FCC thinks the way it has written the rules, certain sections of the Telecommunications Act give it standing on specific rules. The FCC feels they can make a strong case and they have the authority. We anticipate there will be some challenges.

Some of the opponents of Title II have called it the nuclear option, and their efforts have been successful in lobbying support against net neutrality.

To play devil’s advocate, cable companies have packages that give you access to different channels for different amounts of money. It’s a tiered system and it’s legal. How is this different?

I think the internet is a different medium. Cable and television are a passive medium, where they push content to you. The internet is an interactive medium where we can seek information and we can post information. It’s utilized in a much different way than cable television.

Cable television is a way for specific industries to make money. The internet is a way for so many businesses to make money across wide spectrums. It’s used for social discourse. It’s used for education.

It’s a different medium. And while its infrastructure is similar to that of cable, or the telephone, which is why we advocate that it be regulated as a telecommunications service, the utilization of the medium is dramatically different.

The example you gave is a business case, where Comcast might favor its business properties. Are there other types of reasons for favoritism?

Sure, political speech…. Right now with the internet if you have an idea you can put it up there. We need to have someone in authority so that we can make sure our free speech is protected… If we just allow our internet service providers to police themselves, we’ll have no way of knowing if they are blocking sites and stifling free speech and no recourse to correct it.

What do mean you would not know if something was blocked? An organization can post its web address, so you would know it exists, right?

Well you might not be able to get there. It could just say “server error.”  It’s tough to know if something is not being offered to you.

Sign that reads Don't Even Go ThereYou raise a good point, and honestly, we don’t know that sites are being blocked. It took a very tech-savvy person to figure out that Comcast was blocking the use of BitTorrent… you, as a user, would not know they were blocking BitTorrent. You would just see a file transfer error every time you would use it. Someone tracked [the problem] and found out that their ISP was blocking BitTorrent.

The internet service providers are pushing for managed service loopholes and we want to make sure there is strong language that says they can’t create this pay-to-play fast lane and everyone else is moving slowly.

The companies that paid to lay the pipes enabling us to use the internet believe they should be allowed to regulate what goes through those pipes. What’s wrong with that?

The infrastructure of the internet is similar to cable and telephone in that the infrastructure is pipes that are laid. But the medium itself is different from cable, because it is interactive. The telephone is more similar. Would it be OK for your telephone company to listen in and block calls to certain regions?

We would not stand for it if calls to certain places were blocked by our telephone providers. It’s the same thing on the internet. Why would we allow our internet service provider to block content or certain applications?

Are there other aspects of net neutrality that we should know about?

We want to make sure there is net neutrality for both wireless and wireline and the industry wants to treat them differently. There would be two sets of rules. Internet service providers are making the argument that wireless should be treated differently and they say certain phones are bandwidth hogs so they want to be able to block them from wireless networks.

We think wireless and wireline should be treated similarly. One reason is, if they’re treated differently it will have more of an impact on rural areas that don’t have access to wireline. It will change the user experience of low income folks and people of color who are more likely to access the internet through wireless, such as their cell phones. So there are real socio-economic concerns. With some rural areas wireless is their only option to connect to the internet.

There are many arguments to be made about why net neutrality is important. There’s a very good free speech argument. There’s a good economic argument that closing off the web is going to harm businesses that use the web. The internet is a very open and free market where a small business with a very good idea can go on there and prosper. Blocking off sections of the internet, or discriminating against websites or applications can do real him to these business and entreprenuers…. we could really be stifling the next eBay or Amazon.

What to do if you want to maintain net neutrality

There is still a wee bit of time for you to file comments, write letters, or call the FCC and tell them what they want to see in their upcoming order about net neutrality.

You can:

  • Visit http://bit.ly/SBAction to send an email to the chairman. You can edit your message to the FCC and tell them why an open internet is important to you.
  • Visit www.FCC.Gov and on the left sidebar use the “Filing Public Comments” link to express your views.

The FCC decision is not (likely) the end of it

Although the FCC will soon render its decision on net neutrality, odds are good it will be challenged in court. There are many interested parties and much money at stake. If you care about your right to a free and open internet — to maintain net neutrality — stay informed on the issue and visit sites like the Media and Democracy Coalition to learn about how you can have your voice heard by policy makers.

Related links

Net Neutrality 101 (Save the Internet)

Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality, by Tim Berners-Lee

Broadband Network Management (FCC site)

Telecommunications Act of 1996 (Wikipedia)

Telecommunications Act of 1996 (IT Law Wiki)

What’s your take on net neutrality? Please share your thoughts. Comments welcome.

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