It seems like everyday there's something in the news to get enraged about: rancher Cliven Bundy encouraging armed militiamen to fire upon federal agents, Russia's shameless near-invasion of Ukraine, the Supreme Court's gutting of affirmative action. The list goes on. But I said early on that this blog would focus solely on the nexus between art and law and so hew to that vision I must, no matter how much I'd like to rant. Luckily (or unluckily, as the case may be), there is a news story which straddles that line close enough and deserves some attention... FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has just proposed a new net neutrality rule which would effectively kill net neutrality. [Insert finger in mouth, pull imaginary trigger]
A few months ago I wrote about the FCC's loss at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on the validity of its Open Internet Rule. You can read about that here. While the court struck down the Order, I wrote that it looked like the door was left wide open for the FCC to reevaluate how it approached regulating internet service providers (ISPs) and essentially restore net neutrality. I was also feeling confident that net neutrality had a fair shot of surviving because even though there's a lot of corporate money in the fight to abolish it, there were a lot of BIG and RICH companies like Facebook, Google, Netflix, and Amazon which supported neutrality and would lobby in its favor.
Well, Wheeler took the bait and decided to have the FCC draft all new rules, which net neutrality proponents hailed. Unfortunately, they hailed too soon. The rule, which goes in front of the other FCC commissioners for a vote in May, will permit ISPs like Comcast or Time Warner to favor websites that pay more, giving them access to greater bandwidth. That means that for an extra fee, websites will be moved into a "fast lane" - their service will be sped up, pushed to users faster and with fewer hitches in service. Websites that do not pay an extra fee will be ushered to the back of the line. The new rule won't, as it currently stands, allow ISPs to slow down or throttle websites that don't pay up, nor will it allow ISPs to outright ban or block websites they don't like. But that's cold comfort for net neutrality supporters. Once you install a tiered system, that is, once you permit one website to have better access than another website for any reason whatsoever, net neutrality is over. According to neutrality supporters, that will stifle innovation while also raising prices on the websites and their customers. Everyone will have to pay more for no added benefit. And that's just what the FCC appears to be doing, despite Wheeler's promise to keep the net neutral.
For it's part, the FCC claims that, yes while it will allow speed ramping, the net will still remain neutral because ISPs would be required to reveal how they handle traffic, how much they charge companies for access to fast lanes, and whether they’ve given preferential treatment to their own content. But how will this be monitored and enforced? What powers will the FCC give itself to punish ISPs that don't play fair? Having spent some time in government myself, I can tell you that enforcement can be a bureaucratic nightmare. And with an ever-shrinking workforce, it may in fact be impossible. All the FCC is doing is giving itself more work, and leaving a half-assed regulation lying out in the open for future bureaucrats to swoop in and water down even further.
It will come as no surprise that Wheeler himself used to be a lobbyist for many of the companies his new rule will now help. That's sad, if not unexpected. When you work for the government, you take on a public trust. That means whatever your past employment, your present actions must meet certain standards of fairness and neutrality so as to serve America as a whole... not just one specific pocket of wealthy citizens. I won't say if Wheeler breached that trust, but I'm not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt right now.
The death of net neutrality is a big problem for everyone. It will allow a small few to determine what the rest of us get to read and say. Considering the intent behind the creation of the internet - the free and equal exchange of ideas - and considering how much good the internet has done, this cannot stand, especially considering the Obama Administration's past vocal support of net neutrality. I don't know how many of you out there read this blog, but I'm hoping that you take the time to tell the FCC, your Congressional representatives, and the Obama Administration that the only acceptable rule protecting net neutrality is one that actually understands what "neutral" means. I certainly will.