Net Neutrality: All Over but the Shouting?

After well over a year of bitter, often highly partisan debates, and despite dissension within its ranks and opposition from industry groups, the United States Federal Communications Commission is expected on Thursday to vote in favor of rules enforcing Net neutrality.

The commission wants to regulate ISPs like common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.

That would prevent ISPs from offering paid prioritization — that is, levying extra charges on customers in exchange for sending their data through a fast lane.

Public pressure for Title II reclassification has been strong. Public interest organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge and Fight for the Future have waved the Net neutrality banner, and many citizens at large have contacted members of Congress and signed petitions.

Several lawmakers have expressed support for Title II, including likely presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

“We managed to turn the FCC around through overwhelming public pressure from a broad coalition of advocates — from digital rights groups to civil rights groups, libraries and so on, and ordinary Internet users, combined with support from tech companies big and small, public representatives from the mayor of San Francisco to members of Congress — and common sense,” said Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director at the EFF.

The FCC’s Conversion

Wait, what? The FCC turned around? That’s right. In April of 2014, FCC Chair Tom Wheeler had decided to back paid prioritization, The New York Times reported.

Predictably, netizens exploded with outrage. In mid-May, after much backing and filling, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. In essence, the commission proposed to rely on Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act but said it would seriously consider the use of Title II as the basis for legal authority.

“Nine months ago, the FCC was all set to adopt a dangerous set of rules that would have effectively blessed Internet fast lanes,” McSherry said. “We put a stop to that, and all signs suggest the FCC is headed in the right direction.”

Fly in the Net Neutrality Ointment

In addition to protests against the Net neutrality concept, there have been complaints about the lack of transparency in the FCC’s process.

The rules that are the subject of Thursday’s vote have not been disclosed to the public.

“The FCC’s saying ‘We’re making those rules secret, then we’re going to vote on them, and then we’ll announce them publicly,'” remarked Mike Jude, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

Wheeler earlier this monthreleased a four-page fact sheet explaining the major points of the proposed new rules, but the full 332-page document is available only to the FCC commissioners.

Commissioner Ajit Pai has accused Wheeler of hiding the true effect of the rules, alleging it downplays the plans of a massive intrusion into the Internet economy that would let the FCC micromanage the Internet.

The FCC “did not follow its own rules,” Jude told the E-Commerce Times. It did not solicit public comment on the specific rules it plans to implement, instead seeking public comment only on the concept.

Opposition to Net Neutrality

The term “network neutrality” is loaded and biased, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation President Robert Atkinson told Congress on Wednesday.

Further, Title II is overly broad and introduces significant uncertainty into the system, he argued.

Congress should clarify the FCC’s jurisdiction and offer a legislative solution as an alternative, suggested Atkinson.

Title II reclassification will cost more than US$45 billion in capital investment losses over the next five years, the Telecommunications Industry Association has warned.

Offering a contrary view, Francis Shammo, EVP and CFO of Verizon Wireless, which is a member of TIA, pointed out that Title II had no influence on Verizon’s investment decisions.

There are still grounds for opposition, though, because “the FCC is not regulating a technology — it’s regulating a concept,” said Jude, “and regulation is not required because most people have multiple ways to get to the Internet. Expect lawsuits — lots of them. The shouting has just begun.”

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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