The Net Neutrality Fallout
by Dev Sheth | published Apr. 20th, 2015
Net neutrality is an issue raised by the integration of the internet into society over the last two decades. Open internet access as a basic right was not even conceived of until a few decades ago. We take it for granted now that we have the freedom to express our opinions, like in this article, on any matter we choose. While this freedom needs to be preserved, there is some concern on how to further the cause.
February 2015 marked the arrival of the time to settle the net neutrality debate. On Feb. 4, the chairperson of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Tom Wheeler, outlined how the commission planned to move forward on the issue in a statement to WIRED. Then, in a Feb. 26 vote, the FCC approved the reclassification of internet service as a public utility by a 3:2 partisan majority, led by Chairman Wheeler. He gave a speech at Ohio State University to explain the reasoning behind the decision and — surprisingly for a bureaucrat — made sense.
The debate around net neutrality has raged for a while now, pitting networks like Comcast against internet content providers like Netflix. Title II reclassification invites heavy litigation from cable companies for obvious reasons, but it is in broader public interest to push for net neutrality, according to Wheeler. Wheeler’s sentiment has been echoed by over 4 million public comments after the FCC invited the general public to express their opinion on the matter. Backed by the internet giants like Google and Microsoft, the White House has offered its own view on the matter, which aligns closely with Wheeler’s road map as well. Watchdog groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have presented their analysis of the FCC chairperson’s proposed new rules as well.
In fact, the ruling has already been challenged by two separate lawsuits, and Wheeler expects more. However, he remains confident of the decision surviving the legal hurdles, and here’s why:
First of all, the opposition comes from an industry that is divided on the issue. Comcast, AT&T and Verizon remain the major networks that oppose Title II, while Sprint, T-Mobile and several others have expressed some degree of support to the decision. In fact, as Wheeler observed in his speech, everyone knew this decision was coming, and yet all the networks including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and Comcast have invested heavily in expanding their existing networks. The money continues to flow in, and as such, the argument that the decision would harm the industry as a whole does not hold.
Secondly, it is almost hilarious to suggest that regulations stemming from utilitarian classification would erect barriers to innovation and investment. Similar predictions had been made about wireless voice, and yet the industry remains open and extremely competitive.
Finally, this is not the story of David and Goliath. Wheeler and Co. have almost everyone in the Silicon Valley, more or less the internet generation and the White House in their corner. This is not a black-and-white picture; all interested parties maintain that an open internet is non-negotiable. The point of conflict is what the best method of preserving that precise openness is. Usually these issues are decided by the people who hold power, which is why Wheeler can push on with his agenda. Having political and popular support reinforces the FCC's stand, and their mission mandates the steps the FCC takes under Wheeler's leadership as legal and binding. The Title II vote was preceded by the FCC reclassifying the bandwidth spectrum for high speed broadband from 4 mbps to 25 mbps for uploads and from 1 mbps to 3 mbps for download. That move has also been criticized for potentially requiring a major upgrade to existing networks, but the FCC has nevertheless pushed on with it anyway.
The only opposition is a small number of very powerful and very rich companies that are attempting to hold onto their thrones by stating that just because they have the power to be evil, doesn’t mean they will be. Of course not!
For now, Wheeler continues to appear in Congress to defend the Commission’s decisions. The politics of partisan votes mean that the ruling will be subjected to a reasonable amount of inspection. However, with the broad support for the FCC in the population, particularly in an election year, neither side is likely to fight it hard. Hence, Wheeler’s optimism is justifiable. The internet can breathe easy for now.