On Feb. 26, the Federal Communications Commission voted, along strict party lines, to approve new net neutrality rules by reclassifying broadband as a regulated public utility. So does that save the Internet or lock it up in a bureaucratic, censored, expensive prison?
I've been using the Internet since the '70s, and reporting on it since the '80s, and in all that time I don't think I've ever seen so much nonsense said about it as has been said over the past year.
The new FCC rules are not some secret Obama plan to require website owners to have to get licenses or to start taxing it. That's just blather from hysterical wingnuts.
Yes, there are 332 pages of regulations, which haven't been broadly seen yet. Well, guess what -- like most government regulations, these are kept out of sight until they've been approved. What I've heard from friends who have seen them is that only about eight pages of the new net neutrality rules are revised regulations. The rest of it consists of legal precedents and the usual boilerplate that you'll find in any government regulations.
What do the new rules really amount to? If the morons now in a panic over the feds controlling the Internet had been paying attention, they would have seen that it consists of three "new" rules. These are:
No blocking: Broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services or non-harmful devices.
No throttling: Broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services or non-harmful devices.
No paid prioritization: Broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration -- in other words, no "fast lanes." This rule also bans ISPs from prioritizing the content and services of their partners.
I put "new" in quotes because if you'd been around the Internet's technology and legalities as long as I have, you'd know that there's nothing new about any of this.
The Internet you know today, with its Amazon, Facebook, Google and porn sites for every taste, came about because in 1992, the ISPs formed the Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX). It's guiding principle? Net neutrality -- that no sites would be blocked, no traffic would be metered or slowed and universal standards would be used for the free flow of information.
That sounds an awful lot like what the FCC just approved, doesn't it? That's because it is.
It's ironic that many of the lusers squawking about how the FCC is trying to take over the Internet fail to realize that the FCC is just re-enforcing the free-market rules that created today's Internet. What happened is that the last-mile ISPs -- the ones who are screaming the most about how unfair the FCC is today -- broke net neutrality. They did it by deliberately breaking the CIX rules and challenging the FCC's authority to require that they play by the net neutrality rules. Verizon gets the credit for this, having successfully sued the FCC for trying to regulate the Internet in 2014.
Boy, I bet Verizon is sorry it opened that can of worms now. Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Comcast and other last-mile ISPs now claim that the FCC will micromanage the Internet, raise consumer costs, lead to Internet taxes, and disrupt the Internet.
Really? The Internet seemed to have done just fine between 1992 and 2014. Maybe that's just me.
What this is really about is that the last-mile ISPs wanted more money, and they figured they could get it by controlling the new fast and slow lanes of the Internet. The FCC has put an end, for now, to that power grab.
So why am I not celebrating? Well, because all this new ruling did is reset things to the way they were. It did not require that consumers get any choice about their last-mile ISP. As The New York Times noted, the faster the Internet, the fewer choices you get. In December 2013, if you wanted broadband, which is now defined as 25Mbps, chances are you had, at most, two ISPs to choose from. About one in five of you can get broadband from only one ISP.
This, of course, is before Comcast, the U.S.'s largest end-user ISP, merges with Time Warner Cable, the third-largest broadband provider. The combined company would control about 40% of the high-speed broadband market. This will put even more Internet users under de facto monopolies.
What good will net neutrality do you then? Not much.
In addition, in the early days of the commercial Internet, ISPs were required to unbundle their Internet connections. That meant that they were required to lease out their lines on fair and nondiscriminatory terms. Today if a small ISP wants to try to piggyback on the local big-company cable lines, they pretty much can't. The FCC could have tried to bring back unbundling. It didn't.
I know some panicked smaller ISPs are worried that additional FCC fees will put them out of business. Please. Your real problem is the big boys are going to continue to grind you out of business.
Last, but far from least, every bit of this is going to be fought out in the court for years. The most I hope for is that for two years we have some net neutrality protection. After that, we'll just have to see what the courts make of it.