Net Neutrality: Preventing the Skulduggery of Data Cartels

by Melissa Walshe

fcc-logo_white-on-dark-blueOn May 15, the FCC voted to move forward with their proposed rules for net neutrality. Sounds great, right? We all like net neutrality, right?

Wait, what’s net neutrality?

The basic idea is that your internet service provider (ISP) should treat all content the same. They shouldn’t be able to force content providers (like Google, Netflix, that blog you love, your own website) to pay additional money to have their content reach you, and you should be allowed to choose what online services you access with your connection. Net neutrality basically means a level playing field of equal access to any online content. It’s one of the best things about the web! You get to choose what you access, no matter how niche.

So yah, we all like Net Neutrality. And if the FCC voted to move forward with net neutrality rules, they’re protecting this fundamental principle of the web, right?

Here’s the problem:

The new FCC proposed rules don’t actually prevent the cable company skulduggery that’s making net neutrality an issue in the first place. And cable companies would like to be able to charge content providers to allow users faster access to the net.

They can do that?

Not yet, legally speaking, though it hasn’t stopped Comcast from putting the screws to Netflix. The FCC continues to lose ground in the fight to prevent this sort of discrimination. The proposed rules are something of a bandage to keep ISPs from behaving too badly, but they will allow ISPs to implement a legal, two-tiered system that will mean content from folks who don’t pay a premium will be delivered at a slower speed.

Okay…but why should I care?

1. ISPs are protected as “common carriers,” so they are not liable for the content they carry because they can’t discriminate between users in how they deliver their service. This new set of rules would rubber stamp their right to discriminate, without making them liable. No liability for content should mean no discriminatory control over the content passing through.

2. In many areas of the country, ISPs have a monopoly on high-speed internet and the monopolies keep threatening to grow. Anyone who made it through U.S. history in high school may recall that monopolies are bad for a free market economy. They choke out competition, and the pay-to-play model of the internet they want to implement will make the situation still worse for startups and small businesses who rely on the internet to reach a broad customer base.

Come on, the FCC can’t possibly be letting this happen.

The FCC has been fighting the ISPs for the open internet since 2005. The ISPs have sued and won, primarily because ISPs have been classified as information services (such as Wikipedia, Pandora, Facebook, Netflix) instead of as a common carrier (such as telecommunications services). Wolf in sheep’s clothing, anyone? And the fun bit is that the FCC doesn’t have much in the way of regulatory power over information services. That’s good–that protects free speech. But to treat a common carrier as an information service is an abuse of the first amendment. To make matters more murky, suspicious, and ethically challenged, guess who POTUS appointed to chair the FCC in 2013? Tom Wheeler, former ISP lobbyist, CEO, and all-around crony.

But the FCC hasn’t rolled over completely, right?

And here we come full circle to the decision that prompted us to write this post: the “proposed rules for the open internet.” Let’s break those down.

1. Transparency: That all ISPs must transparently disclose to their subscribers and users all relevant information as to the policies that govern their network.

Corporate transparency is good. No problem with that. Might not be as critical if the internet was actually going to remain open, but there is nothing intrinsically problematic with enforcing transparency.

2. No Blocking: That no legal content may be blocked.

Again, so far, so good. This should already be covered by the first amendment and shouldn’t even need stating in the first place, but we’ve already established that some of the ISPs out there are fairly slimy, so it doesn’t hurt to be explicit.

3. No Unreasonable Discrimination: That ISPs may not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity.

And here’s the kicker. It sounds good, right? Isn’t this saying that ISPs can’t create a two-tiered access system for content providers? But before we drink the Kool-Aid and fist-bump the FCC for sticking it to the cableman, I have a few questions:

  • What the heck sort of punk-ass regulation is “no unreasonable discrimination”?
  • Where’s the definition and explicit list of regulations outlining, legally, what constitutes a “commercially unreasonable manner”?
  • And how are we measuring “harm to the Internet”? Someone standing around on Reddit with a chart of faces and asking everyone to point to the one that reflects the amount of pain they’re experiencing at the hands of the data cartels?
  • And is there, somewhere, a rigorously defined meaning of “affiliated entities” that the ISPs’ high-paid lawyers won’t be able to twist to their own purposes?

Yeah, but what’s the solution? What do we want to see?

Super simple: we want to see internet service providers classified as common carriers and subject to the same set of rules and regulations. What would that mean for the internet? Not just “no unreasonable discrimination,” but “no discrimination.”

How do we get it?

Use your voice: the public comment period is still open. Comment on proceedings 14-28 (open internet rules) and 14-57. Note: you are submitting comment to a public proceeding, so the usual internet anonymity doesn’t exist here. Your name and address as you enter them are publicly available with your comment.

I don’t know about all this…

It’s a complex issue with a bit of history, for sure. If you’re interested in learning more, we’ve found Vi Hart (solid backstory and overall explanation of Net Neutrality) and John Oliver (comedian, language NSFW) videos to be both highly informed and highly entertaining in their breakdowns of the situation.

Interwebs 101

About Melissa Walshe


Melissa is the ghost in the text for our clients. She writes, edits, and fine-tunes copy for everything from social media to site content. Melissa is a well-read word geek with an Ed.M. from Harvard and a B.A. in linguistics. Her experiences with publishing and small children have given her a knack for wrangling contributing writers into meeting deadlines and inspiring them to produce better work. In her spare time, Melissa can be found shamelessly hunting for an agent for her book or rescuing her knitting projects from her two cats, who are her comrades-at-arms in pestering her camera-savvy husband, John Walshe.

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