The internet is fucked, and the US government is making it worse.
Political cowardice set the FCC up to lose its first battle for net neutrality regulation: the rules that keep the internet as you know it free and open. The idea of net neutrality is that all traffic is created equal — whether it’s a movie streaming from Netflix, or a WhatsApp message, or a Tweet, or a round of Titanfall. But according to a report from the Wall Street Journal, the FCC is now considering new rules that tear down the fundamental principle of net neutrality. The proposal would allow profit-hungry behemoths like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon to become gatekeepers that give preferential treatment to companies that pay the most for special access to internet users.
Cowardice and complicity plague the FCC
If cowardice caused the FCC to lose its first major net neutrality battle, complicity with the ISP industry is leading to its second major failure. The proposed rules would mark a complete capitulation to the monied internet interests, harming consumers in the short and long-term. The ISPs that control the “last mile” of the internet — the pipes that connect to your home — would love nothing more than to extract tolls from companies that deliver internet services. Netflix’s surrender to Comcast sits in the murky waters of “peering,” where major ISPs connect to one another, but the new rules could mean that similar deals are made in the last mile of the internet where net neutrality thrives. In the future, your internet provider could allow companies with the most cash to shut out other services that have to wait in line to reach you. That means the next YouTube or Facebook could be slaughtered by wealthy competitors instead of being tested on their merits.
The government is too afraid to say it, but the internet is a utility. The data that flows to your home is just like water and electricity: it’s not a luxury or an option in 2014. The FCC’s original Open Internet rules failed precisely because it was too timid to say that out loud, and instead erected rules on a sketchy legal sinkhole that was destined to fail. As the WSJ reports, the FCC has once again decided against reclassifying broadband as a public utility. To declare the internet a public utility would go against the wishes of companies like Comcast and AT&T, which don’t want to be “dumb pipes.” There’s too much money to be made by charging everyone who uses the internet far more than what it actually costs to provide service.
Circulating a draft proposal among the FCC’s four commissioners is only the first step for Wheeler; the rules would need to come to a vote, and this stands to be one of the most divisive, partisan commission votes in recent memory. Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly — staunch Republicans — would be likely to vote in favor of a pro-business policy at net neutrality’s expense, while Democrats Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel could go the other way.
In other words, one of the most destructive technology policies in American history could ultimately be decided on a 3-2 vote.
Following the FCC’s first net neutrality defeat, freshly appointed chairman Tom Wheeler said he’ll “fight to preserve” the open internet, but didn’t specify how he’d do it. If the latest proposal passes, the only thing Wheeler will be preserving are the interests of a few big companies that want to make the internet worse for all of us.