You may have seen the recent cartoon on the Editorial page of the Press-Republican (Jan. 23, 2014) depicting a tank in the process of demolishing a wall.
The tank is labeled “AT&T, Verizon, Comcast,” the wall is labeled “net neutrality” and the caption is “So much for a free Internet...” Your reaction might well have been “What the heck is net neutrality and what exactly is the problem?”
Simply put, the concept of network neutrality is that: all users of the Internet should be treated fairly and equally — this includes end users like you and me as well as giant Internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast. Until Jan 14, 2014, it was assumed that the Federal Communications Commission would regulate the ISPs in much the same way they regulate the phone company providers (e.g Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, etc).
However, one of these providers (Verizon) contested this regulation in 2011, suggesting instead a tiered Internet service whereby a user could pay more to get better, faster Internet service. On the other side of the fence, “Neutrality proponents claim that telecommunications companies seek to impose a tiered service model in order to control the pipeline and thereby remove competition, create artificial scarcity, and oblige subscribers to buy their otherwise uncompetitive services” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Net_neutrality). Comcast was accused of a violation of net neutrality in 2012 when it was discovered that it was favoring delivery of its own video streaming service over competitors such as Netflix and Hulu. Interestingly, both sides claim that their model promotes innovation, which will stimulate the economy.
This issue has been working its way through the court system and now the D.C. Circuit Court has ruled the FCC “cannot subject companies that provide Internet service to the same type of regulation that the agency imposes on phone companies ... because Internet service was not a telecommunications service — like telephone or telegraph — but an information service, a classification that limits the F.C.C.’s authority,” according to a New York Times article. So, due to a fine legal distinction between a “utility” and an “information service,” the FCC’s authority to regulate certain media has apparently been hamstrung.
The basic issue, as I see it, is how to balance authority and responsibility between private and public enterprise. If we use history as a guide, we see that the development of the railroad and the telegraph technologies in the U.S. were a joint venture between government and private companies.
Is this still a valid economic model for telecommunications? Should the flow of information be developed and regulated like the flow of electric power? If the answer is yes, then information, whether it’s delivered over a wire or through the air, seems to be a utility, and should be regulated as such.
While I can sympathize with the concept of a tiered service (I am used to paying more for better service on airlines and the like), I hope both sides can come to agree that information leads to knowledge, knowledge is power, and similarly to electrical power, the flow of information should be regulated by a public utility.
Fortunately, the situation is not hopeless. There seem to be three options for untangling this mess. One would be for the U.S. government to nationalize all telecommunications services much like France and Germany did almost 20 years ago. It would then be the responsibility of an agency like the FCC to administer and regulate such service in a manner responsible to its citizens and not to corporations. Clearly, given the current political climate, the odds of this happening are very close to nil.
Second would be for the FCC to appeal to a higher court for a better ruling.
Third would be for the FCC to redefine Internet services as a public utility, which would require them to be more active in their regulation. If the third alternative comes to pass, the net neutrality advocates will have won and the provider corporations will be looking for new and better ways to increase their services.
Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an emeritus professor of computer science at SUNY Plattsburgh, retiring after 30 years there. Before that, he worked as a technical writer, programmer and consultant to the U.S. Navy and private Industry. Send comments and suggestions to his blog at www.tec-soc.blogspot.com, where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at email@example.com.