Net Neutrality is again threatened by Congress, this time by the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives.
The “people’s house” voted out late last week a measure, the No Rate Regulation of Broadband Internet Access Act – also labeled H.R. 2666 – which House Republicans said will prohibit the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from setting rates for Internet providers, mostly the major telecommunications companies. But FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler maintains the definition of rate regulation in the bill is so broad it could threaten the commission’s enforcement of Net Neutrality.
Net Neutrality is the policy, adopted in June 2015 by the FCC, which enforces fair and open Internet access to all Americans and prohibits the major telecoms from charging higher fees for faster broadband Internet service to selected (rich) sectors of the marketplace while limiting broadband service to other economic sectors (less-than-rich). The guiding philosophy behind Net Neutrality is that the Internet should be treated and regulated just like other public utilities: water, electricity, public airwaves.
The FCC was given the authority in 1934 by the Congress to regulate the communications industry.
Before becoming law the measure adopted April 15 by the House will still need to pass the U.S. Senate and President Obama, who supports Net Neutrality, has already threatened a veto should the measure reach his desk.
The vote in the House went largely along party lines with Republicans voting for it and Democrats voting against it.
It also serves as a reminder the battle over Net Neutrality is not over, even though it became the law of the land last year with the FCC vote. The major telecommunications companies – Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and others – will continue to use their influence with lawmakers and in the courts to gut the rules even though the overwhelming majority of Americans support Net Neutrality and a fair and open Internet.
Europe deals with Internet issues, too.
Interestingly, the vote in the U.S. House came only a day after the European Parliament approved significant new rules protecting Internet users’ data privacy and against alleged abuses by telecommunications companies. The new European rules have been four years in the making and are seen as a major advancement for the rights of Internet users within the European Union.
When viewed together, the two separate legislative actions by the governments of the world’s two largest open Internet user markets represent the yin and the yang of demands and pressure on Internet use in general.(China’s Internet service is far from “open.”)
Ironically, however, Net Neutrality in Europe is far from a done deal.
The U.S. basis for Net Neutrality.
In the U.S., the FCC based its 2015 actions intended to ensure Net Neutrality on viewing the major telecommunications companies as “common carriers,” as they were defined in the days they only provided telephone services across the nation. Even more broadly, common carriers in the U.S. are considered any private company or corporation which goods or services to the general public for the greater good. Interstate trucking companies, for example, and railroad lines are also considered common carriers because they provide goods and services for the general public and the nation’s economy as a whole.
A common carrier, as defined by the FCC, is any company or entity which provides a telecommunications service to the general public. A contract carrier, on the other hand, provides service to a select number of clients or customers. The Telecommunications Act of 1934 specifically classified the telephone companies as common carriers. (This may be shocking to some of you but the Internet did not exist in 1934.)
Outside the telecommunications industry, airlines and bus companies are considered common carriers. Oil and natural gas pipelines are common carriers. Public utilities – electrical companies and water companies – are common carriers.
Common carriers are entitled to earn revenue in return for their service but the U.S. government regulates how much common carriers can charge the public as a safeguard against price gouging or other public exploitation. It’s a sound, decent, fair system.
When President Obama finally issued his position on net neutrality he said exactly what many advocates for a fair and open Internet in the U.S. have been advocating for years: Internet service providers (ISPs – Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and others) should be classified as common carriers.
“Simply put: No service should be stuck in a ‘slow lane’ because it does not pay a fee,” said the President. “That kind of gate keeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth.”
The major ISPs lobbied hard for the FCC to give them the right to charge higher prices for higher Internet speeds; to, in essence, create fast lanes and set up tolls booths through which better Internet service would pass. The government of most of the world’s nations long ago stepped in to require ISPs to provide Internet at the fastest speeds available. (Brazil adopted last year an Internet Bill of Rights, guaranteeing every citizen free and unfettered access to the Internet – as well as the right to data privacy.)
Naturally, the giant ISPs fired back at President Obama’s position and, as a result, fired back at the U.S. public which overwhelmingly favors unfettered Internet access. The FCC received during the summer over 4 million letters and emails demanding it impose net neutrality, the most comments ever received by the FCC on any issue.
In fact and simple best-interests-of-all-Internet-users, treating the ISPs as common carrier is the only way to ensure the Internet using public won’t be exploited and Internet fast lanes won’t be created for the rich at the expense of the public and the greater good. The Internet is a public utility. It’s time the U.S. treat it like a public utility.