As Peter Suderman has noted, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has voted in favor of reclassifying the Internet from an “information service” to being a “telecommunication service” and thus subject to same sort of Title II regulations that have governed voice telephony for decades.
There will now be a long process of what exactly any of this means, followed by inevitable court battles (the FCC is 0 for 2 in recent attempts to expand its authority over the Internet and is hoping this third time will be the charm) and, eventually, possibly some actual implementation of what FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler insists will be “light touch” regulation. Even though Title II rules give the FCC massive power to involve itself in every aspect of how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) go about their business, Wheeler has promised that the agency will in fact hardly use any of the powers granted to the FCC.
Today’s vote is a major victory for proponents of Net Neutrality, a somewhat amorphous set of attitudes and policies which generally hold that ISPs should not be allowed to block legal sites, prioritize some traffic over other traffic, or create “fast” and “slow” lanes for the delivery of certain content and services. Clemson University economist, longtime Reason contributor, and former chief economist at the FCC Thomas W. Hazlett defines net neutrality somewhat archly as “a set of rules…regulating the business model of your local ISP.”
The typical nightmare scenario that gets trotted out goes something like this: Comcast, the giant ISP that controls NBC Universal, will push its own content on users by simply blocking sites that offer competing content. Or maybe it will degrade the video streams of Netflix and Amazon so no one will want to watch them. Or perhaps Comcast will just charge Netflix a lot of money to make sure its streams flow smoothly over that “last mile” that the ISP controls. Or perhaps Comcast will implement tighter and tighter data caps on the amount of usage a given subscriber can use per month, but exempt its own content from any such limitations.
It’s worth noting—indeed, it’s worth stressing—that essentially none of these scenarios has come to pass over the past 20 years, despite the lack of Net Neutrality legislation. There have been occasional cases of this or that issue, but they were generally either the result of human error, technological breakdowns, or short-lived policies that customer complaints put an end to. The closest to anything like the nightmare scenarios above involved accusations by Netflix that Comcast and other ISPs were deliberately throttling its streams. Comcast said it was doing no such thing, a perspective supported by researchers at MIT and elsewhere who found that despite huge increases in demand and traffic, Netflix attempted to push its streams via congested parts of the Internet. Netflix eventually agreed to pay Comcast higher fees for what is known as a “peering” arrangement that is not technically a Net Neutrality issue. What the situation actually underscores is that for all the gee-whiz magic of the Internet, it depends ultimately on physical hardware and resources that somebody somewhere has to build, expand, and pay for. Those charges to constantly upgrade and expand capacity will ultimately be borne by content providers such as Netflix, ISPs such as Comcast, and consumers such as you and me.
Commenting on the Netflix-Comcast pissing match at a recent tech conference, Mark Cuban, who made his first big pile with early streaming service Broadcast.com, remarked, “It’s a battle between two fairly large companies… [They] worked it out, just like happens in business every day.” Cuban, it should be noted, is an archenemy of Net Neutrality and Title II, saying at the same conference that the FCC and the government “will fuck everything up” and “Having them overseeing the Internet scares the shit out of me.”
However you feel about Net Neutrality generally and the application of Title II regs to the Internet, it’s fair to say that much of the pretext for FCC action is suspect. That is, proponents typically claim that ISPs have monopolies over their local markets, that they offer shoddy and degraded connections, and that the United States is way behind other, more civilized countries whose governments more heavily regulate the Internet.
With that in mind, here are some charts about the current state of the Internet in the United States and elsewhere, some of which come from the FCC’s own analysis.