A few weeks ago, telecommunications giant Comcast put out a statement indicating that the company (sort of) agreed with President Obama’s remarks about net neutrality this month. Before I go over how the company and the administration agree and disagree over net neutrality, it would probably help to explain what net neutrality is, and what’s at stake.
Net neutrality can be defined as “The principle that the company that connects you to the internet does not get to control what you do on the internet”, but that doesn’t get specific enough. Net neutrality has been the law of the “land” for the internet since its inception as a public domain, and it’s based on the value that internet service providers (ISPs, e.g. Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner, etc.) may not charge certain websites (like Netflix, Hulu, Google/YouTube, Facebook, “Joe Jones Local Kitchen Supply”) more or less for content delivery. That is, ISPs must be neutral in determining the price for the internet services provided, treating data-heavy pages like Netflix the same as data-light local business pages.
As lobbyists for the American telecommunication industry now hold several seats (including the Chair) at the FCC, the body that oversees internet communication and service, it has become increasingly likely that net neutrality be left by the wayside.
In January, a federal court ruled in favor of Verizon to strike down the FCC’s “Open Internet” rules, saying “that because the FCC had previously placed broadband Internet service in a separate regulatory category from phone service, it lacked the legal justification to impose the Open Internet rules.” (CNN)
However, “the ruling did affirm the FCC’s authority in principle to regulate broadband Internet service, leaving open the possibility for the commission to rewrite its rules within a new legal framework.” (Ibid.)
In response, former FCC chair Michael Copps (now a consultant for the advocacy group Common Cause) said “This decision was right up the big telecom company’s alley, of course[,] a world beyond meaningful government oversight, with no necessity to offer a credible menu of consumer safeguards, or any requirement to build out broadband infrastructure. So the companies could go about the task of cherry-picking where to build, amassing gatekeeping power, charging higher prices, and not worrying about providing all those bothersome benefits to consumers.” (emphasis added)
So, what was the Obama Administration’s position with regard to net neutrality, and about what aspects does Comcast agree? Not interestingly, Comcast agrees with most of Obama’s plan for a free and open internet, which calls for “a new set of [FCC] rules protecting net neutrality and ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online.”
The President says these rules should include a moratorium on blocking access to websites, throttling of internet speed, and paid prioritization, as well as an increased transparency at the Commission. These are great ideas, vital to the success of a free internet, a public good vital the development of a 21st century economy and sharing of ideas.
While Comcast agrees with these ideals, it disagrees with the legality of the FCC’s ability to enforce laws supporting those ideals, stating it does not “support reclassification of broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II.” This philosophically-acrobatic position is akin to supporting a new speed limit law but asserting police do not hold the legal authority to enforce it: the latter position makes the former support irrelevant. Unfortunately, this sort of view is held by many elected officials concerning a variety of topics and is actually quite common in American politics.
Tech research firm Gigaom explains: “Comcast likes Obama’s ideas just fine in theory, but not in practice. And while the company frames the disagreement as a ‘technical legal difference,’ the distinction between Title II (what Obama wants) and the Section 706 (what Comcast wants) is in fact totally monumental. The former gives the FCC power to ban ‘fast lanes’ that would let ISP’s favor some websites over others, while the latter would not.
Also, why Comcast is quick to say that ‘no blocking’ and ‘no throttling’ is its practice, the company might have added that it is currently under a legal order to abide by net neutrality until 2018 — which was a promise it had to make when it swallowed content giant NBC.
The upshot here, then, is not that the Comcast executives had a road-to-Damascus moment. Rather, the ‘Surprise’ blog post shows how the telecom industry is rattled by the sudden possibility of Title II becoming a reality.” (emphasis and hyperlink added)
While the outlook for the fight over net neutrality remains grim, as most rules and legislation of central importance are yet to be seen and debated, the window to thwart corruption is open – if only a bit.
For more information on net neutrality, see the videos below. The first video is of comedian John Oliver on his HBO television series “Last Week Tonight“, and the second is an opinion piece from The Wall Street Journal.