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In today’s world, we take the Internet for granted. We wake up and check our email, we goof off in class on social media, we manage our educational lives on school websites — and of course, we watch cat videos. Lots and lots of cat videos. If you were to tell someone in the 1950s that there would one day be magic screens that would allow you to click buttons on pages that take you to other pages, that person would call you a loon. In our society today, the Internet is damn near as important as the air we breathe.
That’s why the Federal Communications Commission’s decision last week to regulate broadband Internet service as a public utility is so important. On a 3 to 2 party line vote among the Democratic and Republican commissioners, the Internet will now be regulated under the same F.C.C. powers that govern radio, television and telephone service providers. You might be thinking, hey, this isn’t China — what does the government have to do with our Internet service? The answer, as it turns out, is potentially a lot. But before we get there, we need to understand how the government regulates these services.
What gets regulated by the government?
The F.C.C. regulates telecommunications, which includes all radio, TV and phone activity, under the Communications Act of 1934. The Act was passed to ensure that the just-emerging radio market would fairly serve the interests of the public — it’s the reason why we don’t have tons of radio stations overlapping and interfering with each other’s signals every day. The F.C.C. was also put in charge of phone service providers, making sure that large companies didn’t become unregulated monopolies with the power to overcharge consumers.
The F.C.C’s power to protect consumers took a large hit with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated communications industries and allowed for less competition in the market — the greater freedom of companies to merge together is what gave rise to companies like iHeartMedia, which owns 859 radio stations across the nation. It’s also why two cable companies, Comcast and Time-Warner, control 67 percent of the nation’s TV subscribers by themselves (fun fact: they’ve been trying to merge into one company since early 2014). Wireless phone service is controlled by just seven major companies, and the market is barely competitive.
How does this pattern affect our Internet use?
The trend toward allowing large companies to control huge portions of the market is dangerous for consumers — it takes away ability to choose prices and service quality — and the Internet faces a similar threat. In 2007, Comcast decided to interfere with traffic on file-sharing site BitTorrent, prompting the F.C.C. to sanction Comcast; Comcast challenged the F.C.C. in court, which overturned the F.C.C. decision on the grounds that the F.C.C. lacked authority to regulate Comcast’s action. Verizon also bested the F.C.C. in court after the F.C.C. tried to prevent the company from giving faster streaming to services like Netflix in exchange for pay.
This is where “net neutrality” comes in. If the big online names like Netflix, Amazon and other giants can pay Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast to make their sites run faster, the Internet is no longer the bastion of freedom that we know it to be. Companies with enough money could drown out the competition with faster speeds, or even pay to have other sites slowed down — the way BitTorrent was — or interfered with more drastically. The equality and ease of setting up a website for business, networking or just for personal reasons potentially goes out the window — if a large company doesn’t like what you’re doing, you could be targeted.
How did the F.C.C. move to protect net neutrality?
The F.C.C. did last Thursday what it should have done years ago — it finally classified the Internet as a public utility under the 1934 Communications Act. In 2002, the F.C.C. voted to classify broadband Internet service (which was relatively new at the time) as an “information service” under the Act, rather than as a telecommunication service like radio, television and telephone service, which are more strictly regulated under Title II of the Act. That decision was ridiculous due to the Act’s definition of an “information service”: the “offering of a capability for….making available information via telecommunications”.
In other words, the 2002 decision argued that the Internet itself is a service that enables transfer of information through a telecommunications service — which is like saying that your voice, speaking words over a phone service, is the same as the phone service itself. Your voice offers the information, and then the phone service transmits it. Internet service, like the phone service, is obviously the vehicle — not what puts information on the vehicle. And if Internet service isn’t the telecommunications service that lets you use the World Wide Web (which is the true information system of websites), then what is? The F.C.C., against Republican opposition in Congress, made the right call.
But it may not all be over yet.
Republicans in Congress were poised to pass a law that would, in name, support net neutrality, but stop short of reclassifying the Internet under F.C.C. rules — it’s a shrewd example of trying to co-opt the public opinion of the day, while ultimately not giving the F.C.C. the chops to enforce new rules. Without an explicit reclassification of the Internet as a telecommunications service, federal courts would most likely be able to wave off any crackdowns from the F.C.C. the way it did in the Verizon case last year, after the F.C.C. tried to flimsy issue new “open internet” guidelines without actually reclassifying the Internet in 2010.
Those Republicans are still opposed to the new protections, making the usual fear-tactic arguments against the “heavy hand” of regulation, and implications that the new Internet rules would, for some reason, mean threatening new taxes — as well as saying that if the Internet isn’t broken, the F.C.C. doesn’t need to try and fix it. But as Comcast and Verizon have proven in the past, without regulation, the Internet may as well be broken — at least in the way we know it. (But hey, backing huge media companies does have its perks come campaign donation time, doesn’t it?)
The F.C.C. rules could change once a new president appoints new commissioners, or if a court decides to ignore logic and strike the rules down — the public is going to have to remain involved as we go forward. 4 million people wrote to the F.C.C. about the issue, as did 102 Internet companies — if you ever questioned whether the little guy could win against giant corporations in America, you’ve got your answer. And the Internet, and all its cats, sends its thanks.
Contact Opinion Section Editor Ellis Arnold at email@example.com.