Coming Clean on Net Neutrality

I’m relieved that Net Neutrality’s opponents have finally come clean.

Sort of.

For years a long lineup of industry mouthpieces had called Net Neutrality “a solution in search of a problem.” The one principle that prevented Internet service providers from censoring and blocking online content was irrelevant, they claimed, as these companies would never lift a finger to harm the open Internet.

But then they tweaked their tune.

In September’s oral arguments in Verizon vs. FCC, Verizon admitted that it did indeed plan to charge new Internet tolls and favor certain content at the expense of other sites and services. Since then — and especially since this month’s federal appeals court ruling overturning the Net Neutrality rules — industry proxies have said that the problem does exist — but that it’s not really a problem after all. 

“Payola (paying radio stations directly for extra airplay) … is frequently derided by those who misunderstand it, but it actually helps new artists break through,” argue Berin Szoka and Geoffrey Manne in a Wired commentary. “Sponsored data and other prioritization arrangements on the Internet are just a further extension of this.”

To Szoka and Manne's credit, they did run a disclaimer at the end of their article. The writers have apparently received their own industry payola, in the form of checks from network providers.

In any case, this kind of rhetoric assumes three things:

  1. Giving ISPs the right to block and censor Internet content is a good thing.
  2. The whole network is a business that ISPs control; it’s ripe for exploitation by the companies that provide access.
  3. Internet users should simply trust phone and cable companies to protect the open Internet.

That point one directly contradicts point three is cause for concern.

When she argued Verizon’s case before the federal appeals court, company lawyer Helgi Walker said the company wants to prioritize the websites and services that are willing to shell out for better access. She also admitted that Verizon wanted to block access to online content providers that don’t pay the company’s new tolls.

“I’m authorized to state from my client today that but for these rules we would be exploring those types of arrangements,” Walker told the court. Her admission might have gone unnoticed had she not repeated it on at least five separate occasions during oral arguments.

When the court ruled in Verizon’s favor on Jan. 14, the company’s spokespeople did another about-face:

“Verizon has been and remains committed to the open Internet that provides consumers with competitive choices and unblocked access to lawful websites and content when, where, and how they want,” wrote Verizon General Counsel and Executive Vice President Randal Milch. “Today’s decision will not change consumers’ ability to access and use the Internet as they do now.”

So how do Milch’s comments square with the oral arguments Walker made on behalf of Verizon last year?

They don’t. And that’s a problem in need of a solution.

The truth is that a small handful of phone and cable companies control access to the Internet in the U.S. In vast stretches of the country, Internet users have no more than one viable wired option, most likely a cable provider. And while wireless smartphones have made inroads, the Internet experience of your iPhone is a far cry from that delivered via fast fiber or cable lines.

Lacking choice, Internet users can’t vote with their feet and switch from a provider that threatens openness to one that protects it. And the few phone and cable providers that are out there want to control both Internet access and online information — both the tubes and their content.

Where there's a market failure like this, we need to ensure that everyone who is connected to the service is able to share information with everyone else online at the speed that they paid for.

The only clear way to protect this openness is to treat access providers as the common carriers they obviously are. And the best way to do this is for the FCC to reclassify its authority over broadband providers under Title II of the Communications Act.

Title II authority is not about regulating the Internet. It’s about making sure ISPs don’t use their monopoly power to meddle with our rights to connect and communicate. ISPs don’t own the Internet and should be prevented from acting as though they do. This is a critical distinction and one that free-speech lovers everywhere should embrace. 

The phone and cable companies and their paid-for experts can say whatever they want, for or against the open Internet. But with real Net Neutrality protections in place, they can do little to destroy it.

Original photo by Flickr user Steve Hankins