January 13, 2015;Washington Post
In November of 2014, President Obama made a public statement expressing his commitment to the idea of “net neutrality” and his desire to lay out a plan to keep the Internet “free and open.” Part of that plan was a proposal for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to classify the Internet under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, making it a common carrier and thus prohibited from making “any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services.” Naturally, the largest Internet service providers (ISPs), cable giants like Time Warner and Comcast, oppose such measures, and are bringing what influence they can to bear to make net neutrality a thing of the past.
Jump forward a few months, and the landscape becomes more exciting. The first big change is that Tom Wheeler, the chair of the FCC, has come around to the president’s way of thinking when it comes to net neutrality and Title II. Originally opposed to the reclassification, Wheeler had a “hybrid” plan would have used Title II in only “some circumstances.” The impact of President Obama’s stance on the issue leached whatever support that plan might have had, and the efforts of nonprofit groups like Fight for the Future made sure that government officials were aware how strongly the online community felt about the matter.
The second comes with the revelation of the next aspect of the president’s plan. As explained in a speech given in Cedar Falls, Iowa earlier this week, it’s the desire to relax or remove regulations put in place by various states to prevent municipalities from competing with cable companies and other large ISPs by offering fast, inexpensive broadband service to residents. A coalition of 50 cities and towns called Next Century Cities has pledged to bring this “community broadband” to their areas, and President Obama said he would take executive actions to help them do so.
The third piece of big news moves the issue into bipartisan territory. In an op-ed on Reuters’ “The Great Debate” blog yesterday, Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) say that the House and Senate have completed a working proposal for legislation that maintains the goals of net neutrality without resorting to the use of Title II:
“We need unambiguous rules of the road that protect Internet users and can help spur job creation and economic growth. The rules we propose would prohibit blocking and throttling (the selective slowing of data), and also ensure that Internet service providers could not charge a premium to prioritize content delivery.”
Thune is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, while Upton chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The two claim that the process of publicly discussing and formally drafting legislation will begin this week. Meanwhile, Wheeler says that the FCC’s Title II-based proposal will start circulating on February 5th, with the Commission voting on a final net neutrality rule on February 26th. Thune, however, has asked the FCC to hold off on that vote until the legislative solution can be tried. “We think a legislative route is a better way to go, and we’ve developed some language that we think addresses a lot of the concerns that Democrats have raised—but does it without that heavy regulatory approach,” the senator said.
Lastly, we return to Fight for the Future, which has taken the February 26th vote and set it up as a battle for the net between Team Internet (the righteous good guys in green) and Team Cable (the nefarious cable companies and their congressional cronies in red.) By visiting their Scoreboard page, you can see a responsive site that shows your state senators and representatives and which side they fall on, if known. Click a face, and you are sent to one of 535 individual webpages can send an email or a tweet to them asking them to back net neutrality, as well as see a political breakdown of the situation in your state. (They’ve also included the June 2014 clip from Last Week Tonight, the HBO weekly comedy news program hosted by John Oliver, that addresses the issue.)
For those invested in seeing the Internet remain open and equally accessible regardless of content or provider, the next few weeks are going to be crucial. Whether you believe in manufactured team loyalty or not, making your opinions known to your governmental representatives before the vote on February 26th will certainly have an impact on which plans go forward concerning the neutral net.—Jason Schneiderman