One last chance to save the Internet — from the FCC

February 25, 2015
Illustration file picture shows a man typing on a computer keyboard in Warsaw

REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files

As the Federal Communications Commission readies new net-neutrality rules this week, congressional Democrats face a choice: Should they work with the Republicans who control Congress to help pass new rules, or should they stay on the sidelines and leave the matter to a volatile regulatory process, subject to possible undoing in the courts?

I disagree with neutrality — the idea that everything on the Internet should travel at the same speed, whether it’s the remote monitoring of a cardiac device or a video of a cat. But both critics and advocates of neutrality would likely agree that a new law is the best way to set new policy — not regulatory decrees.

Let’s start with some history. The Communications Act of 1934 says phone companies are like public utilities and should be strongly regulated. But the 1996 Telecommunications Act, championed by President Bill Clinton, labeled the Internet as an “information service” that should be lightly regulated. That seems like a good decision: The Internet has grown spectacularly in this unregulated format.

But last month, Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, proposed treating the Internet like a public utility, run for the public good. He said that the Web should be regulated much like the Ma Bell telephone companies of generations ago. Why this sudden turnaround?

For Wheeler is essentially saying there are only two ways to regulate neutrality on the Internet: redefine the Internet as a telephone-like public utility, or pass a new law.

Wheeler chose regulation. And many Democrats are reportedly saying that they want to wait until the commission issues its new ruling. But congressional Democrats can still choose the other path.

For one, they are in their strongest position to influence legislation. The Republicans are willing to concede the principle of net neutrality to avoid treating the Internet as a utility. The draft legislation now circulating through Congress includes many of the points President Barack Obama has declared a “must,” among them no fast lanes for content; no blocking or throttling information by Internet service providers, and greater transparency in the way networks are managed by their owners. And the legislation would supersede any FCC regulations.

It could be the law of the land tomorrow, period, full stop, with no question of its constitutionality.

And unlike legislation, federal regulations will likely lead to years of lawsuits and appeals and ultimately a possible legal override. Because the courts have already ruled in several cases that they don’t believe the Internet is a utility service — that the broadband Ferrari is not like the Ma Bell Model T.

Second, the political winds inside the Beltway are a fickle thing. By handing over control of net-neutrality issues to the FCC, Democrats are daring a future Republican administration to overturn the commission’s action and return to what was, in fact, a policy begun during the Clinton administration. It’s a bad play: A future Republican president could reasonably claim he or she was merely returning the Internet to a regulatory structure championed by a Democratic administration.

In addition, if the Internet can be regulated like phones were, then why not Google, Facebook and Netflix, which people also use to communicate through services like messaging?  Expanding utility regulations to the Internet opens the door for the regulatory agency to stick its nose into their activities, too.

And what’s perhaps most overlooked is that this form of regulation still allows phone companies to offer different tiers of service, which is exactly what net neutrality — the core principle sought by policymakers — is supposed to prohibit. That’s just another reason why the Wheeler decision to treat the Internet as a utility is so mistaken.

By working with Republican majority to enact a net-neutrality law now, Democrats have an opportunity to set rules for a fair, open and competitive Internet well into the future. Congress can do this in a way that does everything that Obama and the Federal Communications Commission want to do without the risk and delay.

In fact, this neutrality compromise in Congress could be the first step toward a sorely needed bipartisan rewrite of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that would make clear the nation’s policy toward the Internet.

This moment should belong to congressional Democrats — not the Federal Communications Commission.

20 comments

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Congratulations, the Republican attempt to make the consumer beholding to the large internet provider corporations has failed.

Posted by JRuss42 | Report as abusive

Rather incoherent propaganda piece here. Consumers have very limited choice amongst a few quasi-monopolies. Unless the power of these quasi-monopolies is curbed by regulation, the U.S. will continue to fall further behind other developed nations in speed, quality of service, and pricing of their internet connections.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

We now pay for the internet in the form of taxes. OUR GOVERNMENT IS TAXING US TO DEATH. iT IS TIME TO FIGHT BACK VIA ELECTIONS.
What do you pay for comcast of optimun or att services??? NOW IT IS MY BELIEF THE GOV’T WANT TO TAX PER TRANSACTION, E MAILS, PURCHACES ETC.
LETS GET A FLAT TAX FOR EVERYONE.
I’M FED UP
NO MORE TAX

Posted by r3mg | Report as abusive

Herr Ehrlich is the president of ESC Company, a business consulting firm, who I’m sure is in no way reimbursed by Comcast for this public airing of his completely unbiased views. After all, such an esteemed man would clearly state such a conflict of interest out right, wouldn’t he? After all this is the man who went out of his way write a 4-page comment to the FCC in support of the Comcast-Time Warner merger solely out of a his own sense of civic duty. Keep doing God’s work, Mr. Ehrlich. We need more people like you – honest, forthwright and refusing to cash in your reputation and history of public service for a primo spot at Comcast’s slop-trough.
Godspeed Mr. Ehrlich.

Posted by PaidCommentator | Report as abusive

Since when does Reuters place blatant sales pitches from lobbyist influence peddlers like this man on the front page? How much did his company pay you to promote his scree?

Shame on you. An outstanding news agency should have more pride. Free speech cannot be bought and paid for, which is exactly what Net Neutrality and Title II protections are all about.

Posted by Randcraw | Report as abusive

Wildly misinformed piece. media conglomerates are dumping billions into lobbying efforts, to convince the government to let them change build a monopoly inside of their current monopoly in order to extort money from, and and squeeze out their competition.
Heart monitors and cat videos. What a load of horseshit.

Posted by Dr-Zee | Report as abusive

This piece declined so quickly towards the end..

“In addition, if the Internet can be regulated like phones were, then why not Google, Facebook and Netflix, which people also use to communicate through services like messaging? Expanding utility regulations to the Internet opens the door for the regulatory agency to stick its nose into their activities, too.”

Because we don’t regulate phone end points right now, why would we regulate internet end points? So I don’t understand the comparison

“And what’s perhaps most overlooked is that this form of regulation still allows phone companies to offer different tiers of service, which is exactly what net neutrality — the core principle sought by policymakers — is supposed to prohibit. That’s just another reason why the Wheeler decision to treat the Internet as a utility is so mistaken.”

This just shows a complete lack of understanding on the subject, yes phone companies offer different tiers of plans to consumers just like ISP do now,as they will continue to do. This is about prioritizing traffic.

Posted by dmj197 | Report as abusive

It stands to reason that we people don’t want corporate controlled Congress making laws on regulation of the internet. Clearly, Congress is sold out to the very forces that would wreak havoc on the open internet, one of few remaining avenues of the citizen to non-corporate controlled information. Loss of an open and neutral internet would be a major blow to our dwindling democracy.

I’d trust government civil servants to regulate the internet over corporate-controlled Congress any day.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

What a crock this opinion piece is.
These anti-government regulation true believers ignore one important fact.
THE GAME IS RIGGED.
We need the FCC every now and then.
Like right now.

Posted by Veldnar | Report as abusive

“Because the courts have already ruled in several cases that they don’t believe the Internet is a utility service — that the broadband Ferrari is not like the Ma Bell Model T.”

Exactly where did this information come from. As I remember, the courts said the FCC could not issue such strict regulation because the internet was not classified as a utility, not because they don’t believe the internet is a utility service.

Posted by Elli21486 | Report as abusive

“this form of regulation still allows phone companies to offer different tiers of service”

If you can only state but can’t back up this claim, which is supposed to be the knockout blow offered by this article, then the entire argument is worthless. Not convincing in the least.

Posted by Nick_Rivers | Report as abusive

What could possibly go wrong. How could this be bad? More control by Government. More power given to Government. More taxes to support our Masters. Only good can come from such a thing. HIstory is our guide. The Government is your friend.

Posted by avlisk | Report as abusive

When government regulates the internet then content will be filtered. At first to protect the kids and later to reduce terrorist activity, at least that will be their excuse for killing the truth that gets thrown against their propaganda.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

“I disagree with neutrality ”

You disagree with net neutrality, you disagree with freedom of speech.

you also evaluate as an unmitigated hypocrite at the same time because your opinion easily reaches everyone thanks to net neutrality rule – instead of no one hearing you over the massive megacorporations.

Posted by unity100 | Report as abusive

“I disagree with neutrality” – I had to take a moment before I read the rest of your advertorial, er, I mean article. You are either getting paid a lot of money or you don’t have the slightest idea of what you’re babbling about. Congratulations, you have just cemented in the minds of truly intelligent people that you are either a paid shill, or just really dumb.

Posted by Albert88 | Report as abusive

Relax — all this will become academic once the Silicon Plague begins to spread; and again later as the Butlerian Jihad sweeps across the universe.

Posted by jamie7 | Report as abusive

“Because the courts have already ruled in several cases that they don’t believe the Internet is a utility service…”

Actually what they did was to point out that the FCC, the responsible body, had not classified them as common carriers. Bit of semantics, that that’s the difference between the truth and propaganda. Now that the internet service providers are classified as common carriers, maybe we will get unbundling and competition too.

Posted by DennisMyers | Report as abusive

“Industry Shill Opposed to Regulation of Industry.”

Surprise.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Patriots pay their taxes.

All of you sending your wealth overseas to avoid paying your fair share are driving the country into bankruptcy.

Love America? Pay your taxes and shut your mouth.

Posted by Rosengj | Report as abusive

The “Author” should more correctly be posting in the FICTION, or Paid Propaganda sections of the Internet. This does not even qualify as ” Opinion”

Posted by DOOM2U | Report as abusive