Net Neutrality and Beyond

Be careful what you wish for. That’s not an original nor unique thought, but it’s handy when referring to net neutrality, an Internet describing phrase that doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning to the general public. And, even after reading up on just what net neutrality is and isn’t, I remain as ignorant as most people. However, I still can’t get the phrase “be careful what you wish for” out of my mind.

Briefly, net neutrality insures that all users of the Internet get the same access at the same cost regardless of volume of use. This prevents Internet service providers (ISPs) from letting the high bidders push others off the pipeline to the Internet or relegate others to a slower and unacceptable level of service. Put another way, if the email and basically text users of the Internet had to still use the old dial-up service, we’d be highly frustrated. On the other hand, those getting online streaming videos, etc. would be happy, but they’d pay for it. Those are extreme examples, but illustrative. You pay for what you use.

That seems logical except it permits too much controls to the providers and blocks out new users and innovators. Hence, protecting the public with net neutrality, which has received broad support from techies, technical companies, and consumer advocates and, of course, populist type politicians. To get to that point, the Federal Communications Commission, by a three to two vote (backed by strong influence from the White House), voted to consider the Internet as a public utility, hence governed by the government. That puts it under a 1934 law called Title II – 100 pages of regulations that applied to the original telephone services, but was updated in two paragraphs by the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

However, vowing that a 1934 law won’t really control the new Internet, the FCC has come up with 332 pages of new regulations, but haven’t allowed the public to see them (be assured the politicians have). We don’t know where that’s going, but 332 pages of regulations will be a delight to lawyers and bureaucrats and costly factors for Internet providers, content innovators, and users. Whether that means a net increase in costs to us bottom feeders or a protection from gouging remains to be seen.

What is certain is that this move will create lawsuits and uncertainty for awhile. It will also stimulate the lobbyist industry, which will suck in clients vying for preferred positions to get preferred or special interest access to the Internet. However, the big fear is that this move to preserve an open Internet will actually result in government control. The history of government is not to shrink away, but to expand influence.

Remember the Fairness Doctrine that ruled telecommunications for several years? That required radio and television stations to provide time and space for rebuttals to opinions. Some want that revived now, particularly since conservative radio and TV talk shows have thrived while the more liberal broadcasters haven’t. The Internet is now a telecommunications element. Will there be government scrutiny for appropriate content, political and religious views? The FCC chairman says “no.” Regulations will be narrow. Can that really be when the Internet falls under the broad Title II act? Can one person, or a temporary majority, limit control or want to?

The concern is that to the victor goes the spoils. While the concern now is that ISPs might be the deciders of losers and winners, the government and all its political influencers might be the deciders in the future. Market forces and rapidly changing technology and innovation might be able to control the former, but not the latter (government).

Personally, I’m not fond of the nearly monopolistic suppliers for Internet and television service and absolutely agree that the public will not stand for slower service to give the big guys faster service. That does beg for regulation. However, that has not happened yet. As some opponents of the FCC decision have said, “It’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.” As I wrote at the beginning, the solution may be a wish we wish we hadn’t asked.


Somethin’ on My Mind is an opinion column written by Bill Northrop. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Gabber publishers, staff or advertisers.

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