In an article just picked up by Slashdot, Jason Koebler writes that:

“American Commitment, a conservative group with strong ties to the Koch brothers has been bombarding inboxes with emails filled with disinformation and fearmongering in an attempt to start a “grassroots” campaign to kill net neutrality — at one point suggesting that “Marxists” think that preserving net neutrality is a good idea. American Commitment president Phil Kerpen suggests that reclassifying the internet as a public utility is the “first step in the fight todestroy American capitalism altogether” and says that the FCC is plotting a “federal Internet takeover,” a move that “sounds more like a story coming out of China or Russia.”

What’s interesting to me about this is that I think it both reflects a developing split on the political “right” over net neutrality, another “wedge” issue dividing old-line conservatives and their techno-libertarian bedfellows, and it nicely illustrates how one has to think differently about substance and process in policy-making.  There are any number of reasons to think true network neutrality – preserving the single global network on which all bits are treated equally, with no discrimination amongst them – is a very, very good idea. It is – I and many others would argue – a prime reason why the little TCP/IP network of 1985 became “the Internet” of 2014.  It means that the network looks the same to someone in Bogota as it does to someone in Boston – the same resources equally available and equally accessible to all, regardless of location.  It is a terrifying prospect to authoritarians of all stripes, from China to Syria to Russia to . . . another reason to like it.

But how do we get there from here?  Even if you think (as I do) that it is the preferred outcome, how do you make it happen?  This, of course, is what the FCC has been struggling with for over a decade – unsuccessfully, to date.  The FCC’s “Open Internet” rules were struck down this past January by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals (in a very well-written and thoughtful opinion by Judge Tatel) on the grounds that the Commission’s non-discrimination rules amounted to regulation of broadband Internet providers as “common carriers” – and the Communications Act gives the Commission no statutory authority for treating them in this manner.  In effect, the court said, the Commission put the cart before the horse; it can reclassify broadband providers as common carriers and impose the non-discrimination rules on them, or it can ask Congress to do that reclassification for them, but it can’t just impose common-carrier-like regulation on them without having done the reclassification first.

AD
AD

It’s all horribly technical, but there’s a simple, and difficult, question at its core:  are we prepared to say that broadband Internet access is in effect a public utility, and that those providing it must refrain (like the old telcos had to refrain, or the electric company has to refrain) from giving preferential treatment to certain content providers?  The world’s a better place, I would suggest, if they did so refrain – but our experience with public utility regulation has not always, to put it mildly, been in the consumers’ best interests or the best way to stimulate the development of innovative services.  This one, however, could be different — is it?

UPDATE:  Larry Downes, always a perceptive commentator on Internet regulatory issues, has a couple of very helpful analyses of the net neutrality fight here and here.  

AD
AD