Can we trust telecom firms on net neutrality?

Here's an entry in my bizspeak-to-English dictionary: When executives in certain industries talk about needing to be rid of regulation so they can foster "better customer service," they're really talking about safeguarding their income.

Case in point: the cable and telecommunications industry, and the concept of network neutrality.

Net neutrality, broadly speaking, is the principle that any Internet service provider, such as your cable or phone company, should be largely blind to whatever data flow to your computer from the websites you access -- your service provider shouldn't interfere with your Web searches, say, by giving Google preferential routing (and thus faster speed to you) over Yahoo.

The net neutrality issue scuttled back into the headlines last week with a ruling by a federal appeals court that appeared to nullify the Federal Communications Commission's jurisdiction over Internet providers' behavior. Not surprisingly, the decision has freaked out a lot of people concerned with keeping the Internet a widely accessible utility.

"Without an about-face, the commission's policies are in tremendous doubt now," says S. Derek Turner, research director for Free Press, a Washington nonprofit in the forefront of the fight for an open Internet. More than net neutrality is at stake, he told me. The court decision undermines the commission's plans to "bring broadband to every corner of America, to protect consumer privacy, to get disabled people equal access."

I have another concern, and so should you. One obnoxious recent development in the media and entertainment worlds is the way distribution companies such as cable operators, Apple, and Amazon.com dictate how you access and use what they sell, whether it's video, e-books, software or hardware. (Apple keeps a stranglehold over apps for its iPad and iPhone, and Amazon limits Kindle owners' rights to copy or transfer their e-books on their Kindles -- its user agreement for digital content, which runs to 1,500 words, doesn't look like anything I've ever had to sign when buying an actual book.) These companies' goal is to extract fees from you without actually having to provide superior content or service for your money.

Last week's court ruling may be another flagstone on the path to digital perdition. The ruling came in a case involving the cable company Comcast, which drew the FCC's fire after it was caught in 2007 throttling traffic from BitTorrent, a service used to download movies, videos and other big data files.

The FCC contended that Comcast had engaged in an impermissible act of favoritism; Comcast replied that its goal was simply "network management" -- that is, keeping some of its users from hogging broadband capacity by filling it with BitTorrent traffic and thus degrading the service for others. Comcast said that for the moment it would stop throttling BitTorrent bits, but it went to court to challenge the FCC's authority to regulate its network management at all. That's what led to the appellate ruling, which went entirely Comcast's way.

It's worthwhile here to separate what's acceptable in network management from what's not. No one argues that Comcast shouldn't have the right to manage its network for efficiency, perhaps by charging capacity hogs higher connection fees.

But right now nothing in the law stops Internet service providers from picking favorites by awarding some websites preferential treatment on their networks, whether for a fee or other blandishment or out of a sense of corporate nepotism. If Comcast succeeds in its bid to acquire NBC, for example, what will keep it from turbocharging its Internet customers' access to Hulu, the video site part-owned by NBC, while making rivals such as YouTube load like molasses?

The danger in such a world is that it would resemble cable television, in which a dominant content distributor in a community -- call it, oh, I don't know . . . "Time Warner Cable"? -- threatens to keep a given TV network out of its subscribers' homes unless the network meets its terms.

The only way a cable channel can win a place on a cable system today is by paying the cable system's price or making itself indispensable through its popularity -- if it meets either qualification, it might be rewarded with a cable channel in the two digits. If not, it's likely to be relegated to those remote reaches of the cable grid beyond the universe of ordinary integers. The opportunities for new, entrepreneurial channels to gain audience are effectively nonexistent.

Let Internet providers play that game, and the chances for an entrepreneurial new website without deep pockets to achieve traction will similarly vanish.

None of this would warrant government oversight if there were genuine competition among Internet providers; that way a customer who didn't like how provider A blocked his favorite video site or funneled his Web searches to its in-house search engine could turn to B, C, D or E.

That's not the case in most parts of the country, where there are at most two competitors, the cable company and the phone company, and often only one that works. (Verizon competes with Time Warner Cable in my neighborhood, but it can't deliver decent Internet speeds to my home -- so effectively I've got no choice.)

That makes net neutrality the perfect issue for government oversight. But how to regulate? Some net neutrality advocates weren't entirely comfortable with the FCC's authority, in part because the FCC is a political agency and political winds can shift.

At the moment the commission is determined to uphold net neutrality and otherwise leave the Web alone. "But we might not like the next FCC," says Fred von Lohmann, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Will we have to worry about the FCC someday announcing an indecency policy for the Internet?"

The better solution, he says, would be for Congress to give the agency specific but limited authority to force Internet service providers to maintain net neutrality. A bill to do so has been introduced by Reps. Edward J. Markey (D.-Mass.) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-Menlo Park).

Does it have a prayer?

"Politically it will be tough," Von Lohmann told me. "The odds of passing something like that over the objections of Comcast, AT&T and Verizon might be a long shot."

Thank goodness those companies have only their customers' interests at heart.

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at www.latimes.com/hiltzik, and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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