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August 21, 2014, 10:02 am

Net neutrality: Washington's biggest decision

Child sitting in front of computer. An FCC ruling on he net neutrality debate, as it’s called, could radically alter the shape of the Internet as we all know it.  — photo courtesy Stock Exchange / Anissa Thompson Child sitting in front of computer. An FCC ruling on he net neutrality debate, as it’s called, could radically alter the shape of the Internet as we all know it. — photo courtesy Stock Exchange / Anissa Thompson

There’s been no serious polling on it since late 2010. There’s no major TV advertising campaign blanketing the airwaves, and Congressional candidates aren’t sparring over it in debates

And, yet, the net neutrality debate, as it’s called, is about to radically alter the shape of the Internet as we all know it — if the Federal Communications Commission has anything to say about it.

Considering the central role online accessibility plays in the lives of nearly all Americans, the net neutrality conversation is one of the most consequential and highly impactful policy debates in modern times. The stakes are enormously high — what the FCC decided to do in the past week could very well not only determine how much or how fast the Internet will be, but could also dictate what the future will hold.

“I don’t think the branding has ever been clear on this issue,” complains commentator and telecommunications lawyer Jeneba Ghatt. “The phrase net neutrality is so complex, and the underlining details that are required to understand, to even begin explaining it to folks, are even more complex.”

“So to avoid doing all that, the advocates are using big vague and broad terms for the sole purpose of scaring people on their side.”

Doug Brake throws a bucket of caution on that, though. An analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Brake clarifies that the recent FCC ruling is merely a first, multi-month step toward figuring out whether the Internet should become something of an open utility or not.

“To be honest, the uncertainty and lack of clarity extends even to the insiders,” quips Brake. “We’re not exactly clear what the Commission is trying to do here.”

Still, many observers wonder if the public even knows what that is. And despite a flurry of urgent statements, press releases and op-eds from net neutrality advocates who might occasionally inject the more understandable “Open Internet” most voters wouldn’t be able to identify the issue among other more pressing matters.

“We are dedicated to protecting and preserving an open Internet,” said FCC Chair Tom Wheeler moments before a highly-charged 3-2 vote from the commissioners. “What we’re dealing with today is a proposal, not a final rule. We are asking for specific comment on different approaches to accomplish the same goal: an open Internet.”

Despite what Brake calls the “technical nitty-gritty,” admitting that even he’s got to wrap his hands around it, the debate is fundamentally about two big issues. On one side are advocates who want perpetual, unstopped, unclogged access to the Internet guaranteed at all times — much the same way folks get water, electricity and heat. But, on the other side, there’s a mostly free market crowd that says that’s not only prohibitively expensive, but potentially dangerous to the engine of innovation that drives the Internet.

To be a utility or not a utility? It’s the great philosophical question — sandwiched between the confusion of a caustic net neutrality discussion that’s twisted up in knots. Should regulators — pushed by a January federal appeals court ruling which essentially blasted the FCC’s net neutrality rules — craft rules perceived as siding up with Internet service providers, many advocates worry that you’ll have a world of Internet haves and have nots. One world of high speed Internet and the other world where certain content can’t be accessed due to slower speeds.

“It can be difficult to explain technical regulatory issues to the public, and then have them understand what’s at stake in the fight for net neutrality,” said ColorofChange Executive Director Rashad Robinson. Robinson has spearheaded a national effort since 2010 against deep pocketed cable and telecommunications companies worried about the costs to maintain an open, all-high-speed Internet.

“Increasingly, Americans are beginning to get it — as evidenced by the powerful activism of the last couple of weeks,” Robinson contends. “That caused Chairman Wheeler to significantly update his net neutrality proposal.”

The gauge on public sentiment toward net neutrality is foggy at best. The last major poll on it was in December of 2010, a time when most were talking about a young upstart faction within the Republican Party that seemed to hijack the Congressional midterms in the previous month. In that Rasmussen Poll, only 21 percent supported the concept of net neutrality — which, to advocates, implies an Open Internet — while 54 percent were opposed.

Yet, that didn’t end questions surrounding public support for it. Only 20 percent admitted to following it “closely” and 35 percent “somewhat closely.” And critics charged that the conservative-leaning Rasmussen was leading the question.

Since then, the political picture around one of the most important policy topics of the day remains curiously sketchy — even as telecommunications and cable giants from AT&T to Comcast to Verizon have actively positioned themselves through lobbyists and campaign contributions. While there are spirited discussions on any given day inside the Beltway at any number of think tanks, there are no signs the larger public knows what that means.

Electronic Frontier Foundation staff activist April Glaser, however, is convinced there is a slowly emerging movement. “The nationwide outcry against the Federal Communications Commission’s troublesome proposal for new Open Internet rules is clearly having an impact,” said Glaser. “Commissioners were factoring in questions that—according to previous accounts—weren’t on the table only days ago.

Ghatt warns that, at some point, the FCC will need to make a decision. “The lack of certainty will suppress markets, and cause hesitance among businesses eager to advance certain biz models that rely on a hard fast decision being made one way or another.”