The name alone, “net neutrality”—combining a word that literally means no strong stance either way with a word nobody uses anymore—seems designed to deter anyone from caring.
Television host John Oliver put it this way: “The only two words that promise more boredom in the English language are ‘featuring Sting.’ And hearing people talk about it is somehow even worse.”
At its most basic level, the net neutrality discussion centers on whether the Internet should remain an unimpeded playground for anyone who wants to start a website, or become a tiered system that allows broadband providers to charge extra for better speeds. Ron Brown, director of operations for San Luis Obispo-based broadband provider Digital West, compared the issue to the early days of AOL, when any consumer could sign up for cheap Internet, and those who could afford more bought “premium Internet.”
“The proof is in the pudding,” Brown said. “The open Internet works, and for us to do a 180 on that I believe would be really detrimental.”
Under the principle of that open Internet, which was codified by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and Title II of the Communications Act in the 1990s, everyone has equal access when it comes to putting out content, whether that’s for a gigantic company like Google or anyone who has anything to say about cats.
“We believe that for the Internet to really be effective, it has to be a community,” Brown said. “It has to be democratized.”
Much of the conversation on net neutrality has centered on large companies such as Google and Netflix, the latter of which recently knocked heads with Verizon by telling customers that crappy video streams were the results of Verizon throttling bandwidth. But changes to the Internet have the potential to impact anyone or any company that uses the Internet.
“The proposed FCC regulations on net neutrality could affect any company that delivers content. A lot has been made of video streaming (i.e. Netflix), but this proposed concept is really about throttling any kind of traffic via the Internet,” Rosetta Chief Technology Officer Joe Lozito said in a written statement to New Times. “Rosetta promises to create engagement and communication between brands and their consumers. It will be more challenging to do so consistently and with quality if these new rules come into play.”
The Federal Communications Commission is for the third time attempting to craft a rule set that would “prevent broadband providers from limiting Internet openness.” The FCC began revisiting the issue in January after the D.C. Circuit Court shot down its previous “Open Internet Rules” based on a challenge from Verizon. The commission opened the issue to an extended four-month public comment period, which ends July 15. In fact, in the previously mentioned TV spot on Oliver’s show, he encouraged viewers to send comments, and the response was so large that it temporarily crashed the FCC’s website. As of press time, about 123,500 people had submitted public comments.
But the term “net neutrality” first began to creep into the public sphere in the mid 2000s. In 2006, then Google CEO Eric Schmidt wrote in the Google Help Center that “the phone and cable monopolies, who control almost all Internet access, want the power to choose who gets access to high-speed lanes and whose content gets seen first and fastest. They want to build a two-tiered system and block the on-ramps for those who can’t pay.”
About the same time, money started to pour in for lobbying efforts. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) roughly doubled its lobbying spending in 2006, according to data from opensecrets.org. The NCTA, which—according to its website—represents cable operators that serve more than 90 percent of American television households, spent about $20 million in federal lobbying efforts last year, according to opensecrets.org.
Individual companies have also thrown dollars and lobbyists at net neutrality. The Daily Dot listed Comcast third out of the top 20 net neutrality lobbying organizations, falling behind only Verizon and AT&T in anti-net neutrality lobbying efforts. No. 18 on the list, Charter Communications, last year spent $3.25 million in lobbying efforts on a variety of issues including “Implementation of network management (neutrality) principles and Open Internet rules,” according to federal lobbying reports.
If those efforts are successful at changing the Internet’s status quo, Brown said online access could take on the same structure as cable TV, with cheap basic packages and higher-priced premium packages for additional access to some sites.
“Really this is being driven by the big cable companies, and they’re taking a play right out of that book,” he said.
For Digital West, which is one of the only local alternatives to large broadband providers, Brown said changes to the open Internet may not directly affect his company, but “it may stymie the usefulness of the Internet” for the average person.
“The best thing is that we are still talking about three or four companies right now, while they are massive, the rest of the Internet … is really against what they’re trying to do,” Brown said. “It’s entirely possible that their stance on net neutrality … will work against them.”
He added that altering net neutrality could have further implications, and in the worst-case scenario it could enable large Internet providers to throttle content they don’t like: “My worry is that if you have large content providers that have a political bias … what happens? How do we have a free dialogue if the Internet is more controlled?”
Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.