News reports are circulating that the Federal Communications Committee (FCC) plans to introduce new rules to end net neutrality. According to the New York Times, “the principle that all Internet content should be treated equally as it flows through cables and pipes to consumers looks all but dead.”
The FCC currently adheres to what is known as the “Open Internet rules,” an extension of the analog-era 1934 Communications Act. It requires all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) — like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T – to maintain “net neutrality” standards, thus treating all data equally and barring them from slowing down or blocking websites.
The FCC actions come as a result of a critical federal court decision, Verizon v. FCC, decided earlier this year. The DC circuit court found that the Open Internet rules were inappropriate established by a Bush-era FCC decision shifting it’s classification from the old “common carrier” model used for POTS (plain-old-telephone-service) to an “information service” not subject to the Communications Act.
The FCC’s proposed new rules will be formally voted on May 15th. Under the rules, the FCC will permit the leading ISPs to introduce a new priority pricing mechanism creating, in effect, a two-tier online distribution network. “Broadband providers would be required to offer a baseline level of service to their subscribers, along with the ability to enter into individual negotiations with content providers,” the FCC announced. “In all instances, broadband providers would need to act in a commercially reasonable manner subject to review on a case-by-case basis.” What is “a commercially reasonable manner”?
These new rules shift the Internet from an open system where all data travels at the same rate to a pay-to-play system favoring preferential treatment for the giant content providers like Netflix or Google’s YouTube. Apparently, the new rules will continue to prohibit blocking or discriminating against online content. Had the new rules been adopted a decade ago, its anyone’s guess whether Netflix or YouTube would be viable companies today.
The FCC’s likely actions to end net neutrality is a result of a systemic campaign to privatization of the Internet and further the monopolistic efforts of the giant telecom and media companies. Over this period, both Republican (e.g., Michael Powell) and Democratic (e.g., Julius Genachowski) commissioners of the FCC have been water-carriers for corporate interests; the one major exception was former commissioner Michael Copps.
Tom Wheeler’s appointment as FCC chairman in November 2013 is emblematic of this process. He served as head of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) from 1979 and 1984; Bush-era chairman, Powell, now heads the trade group. Wheeler previously ran the Cellular Telecom and Internet Association (CTIA) from 1992 through 2004. Before his current appointment, he was managing director at Core Capital Partners, a venture-capital firm, and was a longtime Obama fundraiser.
Over the last decade-plus, there’s been an increasingly close relationship between the FCC and its corporate clients – to the detriment of the public. This was most graphically displayed in 2011 when Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker, shortly following her approval of Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal, took a well-paying position with the cable giant.
The FCC’s revolving door is evident in the career paths of the three most recent chairmen. Kevin Martin, a Bush-II appointee, is now with Patton Boggs, a leading Washington, DC, law firm and lobbyist. Powell, Gen. Powell’s son who now heads the NCTA; and William Kennard, also appointed by Clinton, previously an executive with the banking firm, Carlyle Group, now serves as the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. And Obama’s former chairman, Genachowski?; he’s now with the Carlyle Group.
“The FCC is inviting ISPs to pick winners and losers online,” Michael Weinberg, vice president at Public Knowledge, a Washington-based consumer-advocacy group, said in a statement. “This is not Net neutrality. This standard allows ISPs to impose a new price of entry for innovation on the Internet.”
The “simple” solution to the likely end to net neutrality is to reclassify the Internet as a common carrier service. But “simple” is never simple, especially for the Obama administration where rhetoric has replaced reality as the mark of its “progressive” commitments. While FCC Chairman Wheeler and the White House will moan and groan the fate of net neutrality, they will do little to really address the underlying problem. The end of net neutrality is at hand.
David Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.