Net Neutrality Is Dead—Here's How to Get It Back

by Craig Aaron

(Image: FreePress.net)

An appeals court just dealt the latest blow to the open Internet. Three judges in D.C. just killed Net Neutrality.

This could be the end of the Internet as we know it. But it doesn't have to be.

The big news: A federal appeals court on Tuesday struck down the Federal Communications Commission's Open Internet Order. This decision means that companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon—which brought the lawsuit—are now free to block or slow down any website, application or service they like.

These companies will rush to change the Web and line their own pockets at our expense — creating new tolls for app makers, expensive price tiers for popular sites, and fast lanes open only to the few content providers that can afford them.

It didn't have to be this way.

The FCC's rules were designed to prevent Internet service providers from blocking or interfering with Web traffic. Instead of reversing a Bush-era decision that weakened the FCC's authority over broadband, and establishing solid legal footing, former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski issued the rules in 2010 under the complicated and shaky legal framework the court rejected today.

The rules the court struck down left much to be desired, but they were a step toward preserving Internet users' freedom to go wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted.

Now, just as Verizon promised it would in court, the biggest broadband providers will race to turn the open and vibrant Web into something that looks like cable TV—where they pick and choose the channels for you. They'll establish fast lanes for the few giant companies that can afford to pay exorbitant tolls and reserve the slow lanes for everyone else.

We could pay dearly for the previous FCC's weak political will and wishy-washy approach. But today's ruling leaves the door wide open to a better approach. It's not too late for the FCC to reverse its terrible decisions and repair its doomed strategy.

That's right. The FCC could make all this go away by simply reading the law correctly and reclaiming the authority it already has to protect Internet users for good. The agency had clear authority before the Bush administration abdicated it and the Obama administration failed to fix the mistake.

New FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler recently stated that the FCC must be able to protect broadband users and preserve the Internet's fundamental open architecture. Now he has no other choice but to restore and reassert the FCC's clear authority over our nation's communications infrastructure.

There will be serious pushback from the most powerful phone and cable companies (and an array of hired guns and front groups). They will make threats, recycle all of their debunked myths about the Internet—and promise we can trust them not to do any of the bad things they've fought so hard to do.

For too long, the FCC has worked to fulfill the wish lists of the big phone and cable monopolies—instead of looking out for Internet users like us.

Now the free and open Internet is flat-lining. But Wheeler has the paddles in his hands and the power to resuscitate Net Neutrality. We'll know soon if he has the political guts to use them.

We need strong protections and sensible policies to ensure the Internet continues to thrive and prosper. But to make that happen the millions of people who have fought for Net Neutrality—and the millions more who have rallied against Web-censorship bills like SOPA/PIPA and outrages like the NSA's unchecked spying and surveillance—rise up like never before.

Together we can fight back against these greedy Internet service providers. We can save the Internet we love. But we have to act now.

 

Craig Aaron is president and CEO of Free Press, the national, non partisan media reform group. He is the editor of two books, Appeal to Reason: 25 Years of In These Times and Changing Media: Public Interest Policies for the Digital Age. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

 

Ruling Against Net Neutrality: Victory for Corps, Blow For Rest

Ruling Against Net Neutrality: Victory for Telecoms, Blow For Rest of Us

The US appeals court ruling will make it more difficult for normal people and start ups to get the internet access they want

by Dan Gillmor

Tuesday's US appeals court decision on "net neutrality" is a major, and deeply worrisome, step in the wrong direction.

The promise, and for several decades the reality, of the internet was decentralization: a network of networks where innovation would take place largely at the edges, not in the center. It was the antithesis of the centralized systems of the communications and media systems that prevailed in the 20th Century.

We are on the verge of losing the internet that held such promise, at least for the near and medium term. Today's federal appeals court ruling in a suit by Verizon against the Federal Communications Commission's already feeble network neutrality rules is only the latest evidence. The court ruling (pdf) will embolden America's rapacious telecom companies, which assert the right to decide what bits of information get to internet users' computers in what order and at what speed, or even if they get to our computers at all.

This was entirely predictable. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Congress and several presidents have created a policy and regulatory regime almost designed to limit choice in the long run. The FCC's 2010 "Open Internet Order", shot down by the court on Tuesday, was just one more bad move in a series of missteps. It purported to regulate the carriers in a way that the FCC had earlier ensured could not be done legally, because the commission had freed the carriers from any commitment to behave as the utilities they have become.

The FCC could fix that tomorrow, and thereby slow this rush toward a highly controlled internet. Given the clout of the telecom industry and its well-paid allies, not to mention the timidity, if not culpability, of the policy makers, that's a long shot.

The telecoms have repeatedly promised not to do what is in their obvious best interest: turn the internet into an enhanced form of cable television. You are deluded if you think any American corporation, much less these giants that grew up as government-granted monopolies, will operate for the public interest when that conflicts with their bottom lines and political power. I predict that in a few years, Verizon's statement on Tuesday, promising a commitment to customers' internet access "when, where and how they want" will be seen as a classic in corporate BS.

Besides the carriers, who wins if this decision stands, and if Congress and the FCC don't reverse course? Google will complain bitterly, but it will be one of the winners, because it can afford to be – and, besides, Google already sold out its users on net neutrality in the mobile arena via a deal with Verizon in 2010. Look for deals where telecoms "partner" with Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and big media companies of all kinds.

If you are a smaller company in media or digital services, you lose. Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and the other carriers will inevitably give higher priority to traffic from companies that pay – a double-dipping process for the carriers – and lower priority, if any at all, to the ones that can't or won't pay. If you are an innovator, you lose, because you will effectively need permission from the central players. Facebook didn't need permission to become a behemoth, but the next innovator in social networking will.

Really, though, you and I are the chief losers, because we will pay more and get less than we would have in a more competitive world where we, not the central authorities, make the key decisions about the services and media we want. We won't know what innovation doesn't happen, because it won't be around.

The one positive impact of today's ruling, I hope, is that it will reinvigorate a public debate about our online future. And maybe Congress and the FCC will recognize that we need a course correction. It could start by recalling why the internet grew so fast, so amazingly fast, in the 1990s – because when we had to dial up via phones lines, and the phone company couldn't insist on being the only internet service provider, hundreds of ISPs competed for customers. Then Congress and regulators told the cable and phone companies they could squeeze out, or ban entirely, any competition on "their" lines.

To get the US on a better course, the FCC could classify the telecoms as "common carriers" – a designation that would require them to behave neutrally toward the companies that provide information and services, allowing end users to make the decisions. That would be progress, but it's not enough. It could also become onerous regulation that hinders innovation in its own right.

Eventually, if America is to have truly state-of-the-art broadband, as a number of other countries have done, we will have to recognize that there's little genuine competition among ISPs today. We'll have to accept that there's a natural monopoly in the deployment of fiber optic lines to homes and businesses (or at least to the curb outside). If we allow single companies to build those lines, we will have to require that those companies allow others to provide internet access itself on the lines – sharing them, in other words.

Last week my university hosted a group of journalism teachers from other schools. These professors are planning to help their students appreciate what I call the "startup culture", an entrepreneurial environment that rewards ideas and execution in an always-changing technology and media ecosystem. At the end of our five-day workshop, I implored these educators to learn more – and help their students understand – the impact policy has on what they do today, and what they will be able to do tomorrow. In particular, network neutrality is a linchpin to a future in which tomorrow's media ecosystem will emerge.

It's all about control, I said. If control reverts to the center of the networks, tomorrow's innovators will need permission, and tomorrow's media users will have fewer choices. The court's ruling is a big step backward for the future innovation America supposedly wants.

 

Dan Gillmor is founding director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, a project of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Arizona State University, and is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People, and Mediactive.

 

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