On January 14, 2014 there was a critical decision made by the US Court of Appeals (DC Circuit) in a case between Verizon the the FCC. In the case, Verizon challenged the FCC’s right to regulate Data connections because Data Connections were classified as a Enhanced Service and not classified as a Common Carrier service like telephone communication. You may or may not remember the brief uproar that occurred on both sides of the issue. Verizon and the other “Big Data” providers cheered and stated that the Government has no business regulating the Internet. Tech geeks, like myself started to get worried and dig out our Don McLean albums to mourn the “Day the Internet Died.”
So, why does this matter? What’s the big deal? The truth is that it is a fairly complicated issue, but breaking it down into the simplest terms, the FCC re-classified Internet Service as an Enhanced Service in 1980 to ensure that Telecommunications companies would provide equal and open access to Information Service Providers. By insuring that the phone company could not restrict companies like Earthlink, Erols, AOL and Compuserve from using their phone lines to provide dialup connectivity. This break between service provider and Carrier was made to facilitate growth in the Data Services market and provide an equal access playing field for emerging Internet services.
The mission was accomplished. However, by re-classifying Data as an Enhanced Service they opened Pandora’s box. Because when Internet services are exempt from “Common Carrier” status they are no longer obligated to
“furnish . . . communication service upon reasonable request,”… engage in no “unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services,” and charge “just and reasonable” rates. (source Page 7 of the US Court of Appeals (DC Circuit) decision)
Without these Common Carrier protections the “Big Data” providers can pretty much do what they want with your Internet connection and there is nothing you can do about it. Unfortunately, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 did not adequately address the FCC’s jurisdiction over Enhanced Services which leads to the mess we are in today.
The supporters of Big Data maintain; “But the market will work this out! If my ISP is doing something I don’t like, I’ll switch!” Will you? Will you be able to?
Verizon has already stopped rolling out FIOS and the Cable companies are a Franchise Monopoly controlled by local government. So, If you don’t have FIOS already (and geographically speaking it’s a pretty small footprint) you either accept DSL or accept Cable. So for most of us it’s really a choice between the local Cable company or the local Phone company. Yes, there are some third party ISP’s out there, but they require a dense population to be successful and subsequently represent a fairly small percentage of the overall market.
So the reality is, depending on where you live it’s really a choice between Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner, Cox or AT&T, pick the two that apply to your neighborhood.
If the FCC has the ability to govern Internet connectivity rights, just like they already do for Telecommunications access rights, nobody gets away with deciding that some Internet traffic is more desirable (read profitable) than others. For example, the FCC stopped Comcast in 2008 from blocking peer-to-peer network traffic which inhibited communications for several major Internet services.
What would happen now if Comcast decides that Netflix or Amazon Prime are eating too much into their TV revenue? Without the FCC to enforce Net Neutrality, nothing. What happens if Amazon cuts a deal with AT&T to get preferred treatment on its networks and pays AT&T for premium bandwidth to their subscribers. Suddenly, your Netflix subscription will begin to buffer more often and there is nothing you can do about it. Don’t think these scenarios are so farfetched either. At the 2014 Consumers Electronics Show in Las Vegas, AT&T Wireless announced a Sponsored Data service for content providers where the providers could pay for the end user’s Wireless data for their services.
About now you may be thinking; “But these are gigantic corporations, I’m not worried about them. I have my own problems!” Yes you do, and this is one of them. What happens when your email takes a few hours to be delivered because a carrier views your traffic as “less important?” What happens when your web site suddenly loads at a snails pace and the products and services you offer are painful to view because it just takes too long for your customers to see them? What happens when your online store can’t get the visibility it needs because it’s blocked by essentially ¼, or more, of the ISP’s in the country?
I’ll let that sink in for a minute.
The keystone principle, that has been responsible for all of the explosive Internet growth over the past 34 years, is that all traffic is treated equally. It does not matter if you are a multi-billion conglomerate selling everything from tires to toothpaste, or a local print shop taking orders for stationary and business cards; the internet treats you and your customers alike. Period.
This is why Net Neutrality matters to you. This is why it is so important to make sure that four major companies do not control 90% of the Internet at their whim. This is why you should be as concerned as the Tech geeks.
If the internet “dies” there will be a devastating ripple effect on large and small businesses alike.
Regardless of your political affiliations, Net Neutrality matters. I urge you to write your representatives and sign one of the many Net Nutrality petitions at https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/. It’s not too late to save the Internet as the free space we have always known it to be.