Why broadband should be reclassified as a common carrier
If you follow tech news at all, you’ve probably noticed an awful lot of discussion about net neutrality and/or reclassifying broadband lately. Hell, you may have heard something about it even if you don’t follow tech news. Why? Because it’s actually a pretty big deal.
First, a little background:
Net Neutrality is the idea that online content should be accessible by all, without favoring or blocking of that content. Basically, broadband providers would very much love to be able to give certain content priority over other content, because they could charge the content provider for that privilege. For example, Netflix could pay Comcast to allow Comcast’s customers better speed when accessing Netflix’s content. Hulu, on the other hand, may choose not to pay for such an arrangement. That means that, for Comcast customers, Netflix movies would load faster and buffer less than content from Hulu.
So why is it important that this NOT happen? Because when you start charging for priority, its the newer, smaller companies that ultimately suffer. Established companies, like Netflix and Google, can afford to pay broadband providers for special privileges. Newer services that aren’t as well established and don’t have as much money to spend on extras (services like, for instance, Spotify, Pocket, Treehouse, and so on) are stuck on the slower traffic tier while the big names’ websites and services zip right along for people using ISPs that have deals with them.
Rather than the internet being the great equalizer it has become over the years, losing net neutrality would turn the internet into a land of the haves and the have-nots.
So what would reclassification accomplish?
A lot of people believe that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should be reclassified as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act, rather than allowing them to remain an “information service”. This would make them subject to significantly increased FCC regulation.
Up until recently, net neutrality was simply assumed, not actually codified. It was nothing more than a common courtesy. Not too long ago, the FCC attempted to codify it, but because ISPs are not common carriers (and ISPs really hate the idea of net neutrailty being the law of the land rather than something they get to chose whether or not they adhere to), Verizon sued the FCC over the attempt and, of course, won. What this means is that ISPs now have a court case they can point to if they decide to start breaking with net neutrality conventions that basically says they’re completely allowed to treat internet traffic however they want. Net neutrality is essentially dead the moment an ISP decides to take advantage of that (and at least one is drawing up plans to do exactly that).
What’s more, the court decision vacated the order that prevented ISPs from blocking or otherwise degrading so as to make unusable, access to lawful content… which has the potential to lead to massive censorship issues.
And where does that leave us? With an internet where users have no protections. An ISP can block any website it likes. It can implement a system where users’ general traffic is throttled in order to prioritize the content from online companies willing and able to pay for preferential treatment.
Reclassifying ISPs as common carriers makes that court decision a non-issue. In fact, the court itself, in its ruling, pretty much stated as much. It would grant the FCC the undisputed legal authority to keep the internet open.
But isn’t that a bad thing?
Just this past week, the FCC’s Tom Wheeler made a statement that seemed to indicate that he was looking more and more at the idea of reclassifying ISPs. This promptly resulted in various broadband providers freaking right the hell out and issuing all kinds of public statements claiming everything from “the FCC is trying to regulate the internet” (it’s not… it’s trying to regulate access to the internet, which is a wholly separate matter. If telephone services had not been designated as common carriers and thus were required to have open, neutral access, the internet likely wouldn’t exist today) to “reclassification will mean that everything on the internet will have to be reclassified, too” (it won’t).
So who exactly thinks reclassification would be a good thing?
Even the White House has publicly stated that Net Neutrality must be preserved, though they stopped short of calling for reclassification.
So reclassification is the perfect solution, right?
No, it’s not. And it certainly won’t solve all of our country’s problems with the internet. It won’t fix the fact that we have some of the most expensive (and slowest) internet access in the world. It won’t change our issues with massive lack of competition in the broadband marketplace. It won’t fix our infrastructure problems and the lack of access all together in certain areas of the U.S.
But what it will do is prevent things from getting worse by not allowing ISPs to choose what you can and can’t access online.