Net neutrality: The sky is falling, or not, with new FCC rules


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Only the barest outlines have begun to emerge of the new rules that could govern access to the Internet. But, predictably, a lot of people are spewing gigabytes of invective about the potential harm to our most democratic medium.

Tuesday’s 3-2 FCC vote approving new regulations was designed to assure equal access—for companies and individuals—to the Worldwide Web and whatever great innovations emerge in years to come. Years of litigation and, perhaps, legislation will follow--battles that will do a lot more to settle the future of “net neutrality” than the current rush of words.


But while several writers noted an inherent sadness over the end of the Internet’s wild and woolly days of laissez faire, or predicted a menacing government takeover, it seems safe to bet that the rules won’t bust up the free information party nearly that dramatically, or haphazardly.

Interpreting the rules can be a dicey proposition, at best, since they haven’t even been formally issued by the feds. And even the general outlines we know raise as many questions as they answer.

Take the concept of “paid prioritization.” That’s the notion that media and tech companies could pay broadband providers like Comcast and Qwest a fee to get their data transmitted faster than data from other companies that don’t pay a premium.

The new rules do not explicitly outlaw ‘paid prioritization.’ But the rules don’t approve paying for better access, either. Most observers took the lack of specificity to mean that the FCC, at least in some instances, would allow companies to pay to get a faster ride through the Internet “pipe.”

Internet purists and political liberals complain that this will mean the beginning of the end of the Internet’s egalitarian ideal. They have a point.

“I am fan of net neutrality in the classic sense,” said Andrew Lih, an associate professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. “That means we all would have access to what’s called a ‘dumb pipe,’ where Google, Netflix and anything else have the right to the same access. That’s what makes the Internet great.”


What’s caused complications in recent times, however, is the massive surge in the amount of bandwidth being filled by video streaming services like Netflix. The all-created-equal ethos is challenged when a small percentage of users (though growing rapidly every day) suck up a huge percentage of the capacity.

“In the real world, there is only so much bandwidth and there are real costs associated with building it and maintaining it,” said Lih, author of “The Wikipedia Revolution.’ Broadband operators want to recoup those costs and profit, by charging the companies that use an outsize share of broadband.

Jonathan Taplin, director of USC Annenberg’s Innovation Lab (I know, I know: two USC sources. But these guys know their stuff) said it only makes sense that the Internet provider who wants to ship a 3-D version of the movie “Alice in Wonderland” would have to pay a premium to get a “super-speed lane” on the next generation of broadband—which will deliver data at many times the speed of current networks.

“The tsunami of mobile video makes it necessary for providers to do some sort of network management until we catch up to the rest of the world with ubiquitous 4G service,” Taplin said. “That’s probably a few years off.”

While the left complained about the loss of a utopian ideal, critics on the right suggested the FCC rule signaled a plot to stifle their voices. Radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh said Tuesday that the rules were about the Democratic majority on the FCC “wanting to get their hands on something that is massive, that can harm them. They have to control as much as they can the free flow of information.”

This is the same Limbaugh, of course, who routinely issues dire warnings about the return of the “Fairness Doctrine,” which died nearly a quarter-century ago. I wrote when President Obama took office that there would be no return of the doctrine, which required a balancing of viewpoints on issues of public interest. And, despite a few random calls for its resurrection, the doctrine hasn’t budged on the coroner’s slab.

Concluded the Innovation Lab’s Taplin: “If both Rush Limbaugh and the Progressive blogosphere are very angry about the FCC decision, then Chairman [Julius] Genachowski must be doing something right.”

--James Rainey