On the 7th of May, Internet neutrality activists showed up in front of FCC headquarters, announcing the start of an occuption that will last until a May 15 vote on a proposal to permit “paid prioritization” of bandwidth. Activists are demanding that the FCC scrap the “internet toll lanes” proposal and instead reclassify all Internet Service Providers as “common carriers” like phone companies are supposed to be. As of May 9 the Washington Post reports the paid prioritization proposal is in serious trouble under a groundswell of public outrage at this planned giveaway to the Big Telcos and Cable TV providers.
Activists are demanding that the FCC reclassify all Internet Service Providers as “common carriers” like phone companies are supposed to be. This would permit the FCC to prohibit providers from selling bandwidth to the richest users such as Google at the expense of every other website. It would nullify a court decision on Comcast’s behalf nullifying previous net neutrality regulations, as the court held that if the ISP’s were not common carriers, than they could not be regulated like common carriers are.
Common carriers are not permitted to favor some content at the expense of others. Some ISP’s are signing deals with companies like Netflix to speed up their bandwidth at the expense of all other users of their network. Comcast has already been slapped down once for outright blocking Bitorrent for fear it would encourage Comcast internet subscribers to stop buying cable TV if they could download movies elsewhere, whether free, bought from a competitor, or pirate.
If net neutrality goes away, you might not be able to read Indymedia and might have to Buy extra bandwidth to watch videos from anyone other than your cable TV company, Netflix, or Youtube. ISP’s might sell rigidly capped plans of “2GB a month and all the Facebook, Google, and other paid content you can consume.” How are people supposed to watch videos banned from Youtube the way some of mine were under such conditions?
Given that there is only so much bandwidth at any given time, paid “Lexus Lanes” for the biggest bandwidth hogs like Netflix, Google, and Youtube would mean reducing bandwidth available to all other users, equivalent to turning existing lanes on highways into toll lanes and congesting all other traffic. All that talk of “driving innovation” should be considered a smokescreen for increasing corporate profits, given that the focus on profit instead of service has given the US some of the slowest Internet connections in the industrialized world. This may be a minor issue compared to raising the minimum wage and controlling rent, but it is yet another example of the failure of markets to serve the public interest.
On the other hand, if ISP’s do escape common carrier status and become regarded as expected to discriminate on the basis of content, they might face huge lawsuits over everything from file sharing to child pornography that travels over their networks. Case law dating back to the early days of the telephone industry has held that “common carriers” are not liable for things like Mafia extortion calls and ransom demands made over their telephone networks. This is all that stands between these foolish ISP’s who want control over content and potentially ruinous liability that could come with control and the expectation of control.
The FCC is scheduled to vote on May 15 whether or not to reclassify Internet Service Providers as common carriers. FCC Commissioner Jesseca Rosenworcel is calling for delaying this vote the grounds of massive public interest in what is nothing less than the future of the entire Internet.