Why Net Neutrality Became A Thing For The Internet Generation

The Platform is a regular column by mobile editor Dan Rowinski. Ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence and pervasive networks are changing the way humans interact with everything.

FCC commissioner Mike O’Rielly had just finished torrid remarks opposing the notice for proposed rulemaking over the open Internet yesterday when a young woman in the crowd got to her feet and started yelling.

“I speak on behalf of the Internet generation, we vote for a free and open Internet….” She didn’t get much further than that. She tried to say something about Title II and common carriers, but was promptly picked up by security and taken out the door.

Everybody and their mothers (especially FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn’s mother, apparently) are up in arms about this net neutrality thing. Why now? Net neutrality has been an idea, and occasionally a set of somewhat spotty regulations, kicking around the Internet for years, and the public hasn’t ever much seemed to care.

Even a week ago, if you’d ask people for their thoughts on “common carrier” regulation or “Title II” or “paid prioritization,” you’ll probably get a lot of blank stares. (Now, though, they can study up with ReadWrite explainer on everything you need to know about net neutrality and the FCC.)

But American citizens are sure paying attention now. I mean, who really goes to a FCC open meeting to shout down the commissioners? 

See also: Net Neutrality: Your Cheat Sheet To The FCC’s Proposal

People have come to realize the undeniable and basic fact that the Internet is the platform of the 21st century. This isn’t just about the World Wide Web, smartphones, apps, the Internet of Things or smart cities. This is the whole shebang, the entire substructure that underpins the digital age.

And people have also come to realize that their freedom and privacy on the Internet face some very real threats from some very large corporations and organizations. 

Quick Thoughts: Google Play Accepts PayPal

You might not think it a big deal, but the fact that Google Play now accepts PayPal as a payment method caused a big debate in the ReadWrite newsroom. In my mind, this is just another way for Google to allow people across the world pay for apps and media, just like all the new payment methods it added to Google Play Services at I/O last year. But our Editor-in-Chief Owen Thomas believes it signifies much more.

PayPal and Google have battled over the payments space for a long time, though the fight has been pretty one-sided; PayPal has emerged as the dominant company in online transactions. Is the PayPal partnership with Google Play an admission of defeat by Google, one that implies its Wallet product is basically dead and useless? I have covered Google fairly closely for years and Owen has covered PayPal since its Series A funding in the late 1990s. We have diverging opinions.

To me, the partnership looks like business as usual. Google is setting up new developer services ahead of I/O 2014 and PayPal’s goal is to move horizontally through the tech industry and make partnerships with everybody. What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

The Internet Generation, per that FCC protestor, has been emboldened. These are people jaded by news of the NSA’s incessant digital spying and their Internet providers’ complicity in it. These are individuals that hold little goodwill for the cable and cellular carriers that keep foisting higher Internet service fees on them while also imposing bandwidth caps and other restrictions. Complaining about your Comcast or Verizon bill has become a national hobby.

There’s plenty of precedent for this activism. Demonstrations against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and CISPA actually derailed changes that many saw as bad for the Internet, fueled by a culture of dissent stemming from the Occupy movement and protests against the tech industry in San Francisco. Many in this generation appear to be wary of wealth, wary of mega-corporations and ready to light up at a moment’s notice to protect what they think is just and right.

An open Internet governed by net neutrality rules seems to strike many of them as just and right.

This generation, after all, has grown up the Internet as a ubiquitous and ever-present utility. It’s a generation that doesn’t think of broadband as an information service—it has no memory of Usenet, or bulletin boards or AOL or Web “portals”—but a utility like water or electricity. This generation wants its broadband access on tap, on demand, for a fair and reasonable price.

The Title II Panacea May Not Be

Net-neutrality supporters are suspicious of an FCC that has twice failed to protect an open Internet—most recently, when it lost a court battle to Verizon over its ability to regulate broadband as an “information service.” That ruling brings us straight to this week, where the FCC is trying, yet again, to create rules for net neutrality that it can actually enforce.

Supporters now believe that if the FCC re-classifies broadband providers as “common carriers” under its authority via Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, then all will be hunky-dory with net neutrality.

Title II is most likely the FCC’s strongest legal choice. Its other option—cobbling together authority under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act—would be a much trickier proposition, and might well get overruled again in court.

Broadband providers already act like common-carrier utilities when it suits their purposes. According to a report from the Public Utility Law Project this week, Verizon has played the Title II card to build its broadband infrastructure in New York and New Jersey when it was convenient to use public infrastructure to do so. Basically, Verizon is using public utilities to help build its broadband system (and often doing a bad job of it). Through its actions, companies like Verizon basically show that they are public utilities and hence should be regulated as such.

Quote Of The Day: “I don’t like the idea that the internet could be divided into haves and have-nots, and I will work to see that that does not happen. In this item we have specifically asked whether and how to prevent the kind of paid prioritization that could result in fast lanes.” ~ FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler during the commission’s open meeting yesterday.

But here’s the kicker: Title II would give the FCC greater power to regulate broadband providers as common carriers, but that doesn’t mean the FCC will necessarily use it wisely.

The issue that has everybody up in arms is paid prioritization, which could allow for the Internet “fast lanes” (allowing broadband providers to charge companies more for faster Internet service). And paid prioritization is an issue because FCC chairman Tom Wheeler first floated the idea of formalizing the practice in FCC regulation last month.

And the proposed rules the FCC released yesterday still contain significant loopholes that would permit paid prioritization, despite Wheeler’s rhetorical insistence that he will fight fast lanes to the end. 

If the FCC goes down the Title II route—and successfully defends itself against the inevitable lawsuits—it will have the wherewithal to regulate the Internet for good or ill. Public pressure has already forced it to support net neutrality, at least rhetorically. More will be necessary to make sure it follows through, particularly once the spotlight of public attention moves on.

It’s equally possible to imagine a future FCC—say, one dominated by free-market advocates under a Republican administration—smuggling Internet fast lanes back into its regulatory scheme. Giving the FCC power to regulate broadband as a utility might seem like a great idea, but proponents of net neutrality should be careful what they wish for.

More On The FCC, Title II And Net Neutrality

Lead photo via Wikimedia Commons

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