Without our input, the Internet's fate is left to the whim of career politicians, lobbyists, and marketing departments.
The destiny of the Internet as we know it today hangs on the fate of Net neutrality. I'll dig into some of the basics of Net neutrality in this article (with mostly fact but a few closing opinions), but before that, let's go back in time.
Modern telephone service came of age in the 1940s. Back then, American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) was a U.S. monopoly providing both telephone services and hardware. If you wanted something telephone-related back then, you were a captive customer.
A Harbinger of Net Neutrality
By the '50s, the "candlestick" phone was prevalent in the U.S. You've surely seen a picture of this phone; the desktop version featured a vertical column with a speaker perched atop and a hook for the receiver you held to your ear. (If you've seen The Andy Griffith Show, it's the kind of phone that Andy had on his desk. Operator Sarah was always standing by.) The design of this phone didn't provide much privacy, and the Hush-A-Phone Corporation introduced a device called the Hush-A-Phone that added a degree of privacy and increased voice fidelity. This snap-on device essentially made the old candlestick phone behave a little like a modern telephone handset.
AT&T strongly objected to the Hush-A-Phone. It said the device violated its rights to dictate practices associated with its fees and that it had the right to forbid the attachment of third-party devices to its telephones. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), born out of the Communications Act of 1934, initially agreed with AT&T. Hush-A-Phone disagreed and filed a lawsuit to allow the continued marketing and use of its device. In 1956, a Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Hush-A-Phone's favor, stating that AT&T's objection to the device wasn't fair and that the device was reasonable. (Alas, unfortunately for Hush-A-Phone, the candlestick phone was rapidly falling out of favor by the time of the ruling.)
At about the same time, John Carter wanted to market a device he called the Carterfone. This device provided a cradle into which you placed a telephone handset. It connected a two-way radio with the telephone system. This worked much like today's ham radio "autopatch," allowing a two-way radio operator an output-going telephone connection. Once again, AT&T objected. Carter filed a lawsuit and, also in 1956, a consent decree was issued allowing the device. This ruling "enjoined and restrained" AT&T from its objections and dramatically limited its monopoly-driven behaviors.
The Hush-A-Phone and Carterfone rulings were major legal landmarks. They opened the door for the establishment of MCI, an alternative telecommunications company to AT&T, and more pervasive competition possibilities in general. Without the Hush-A-Phone and the Carterfone, the Internet as we know it today, fueled by its early grown with modem-driven access, wouldn't be the same.
Fast-forward to the ongoing "Net neutrality" debate that's currently raging. There are many issues represented in these two words, but essentially Net neutrality encapsulates the notion that the Internet should be free and clear to all and that large Internet service providers can't rule the Internet with the same strong-arm tactics that AT&T once used to rule telephone service. This evil is generally considered to be manifested by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) holding content providers' content hostage—either by limiting its delivery or applying artificial surcharges for its delivery.
Reclassifying the Internet
One of the ripple-down effects of the Communications Act of 1934 was the classification of telephone service as a common-carrier service. This allowed the FCC to monitor and regulate telephone usage as though it were a public utility. As a public utility, telephone service providers were forbidden from giving preferential treatment to partners and customers.
During its infancy, no one paid much attention to the Internet and its communications potential from a regulatory point of view. Telephone lines were the primary delivery mechanism for the early days of consumer Internet, and as such, the Internet fell under the purview of "common carrier" classification—by default rather than by design.
With the Internet's full potential coming into focus, in 2002 the FCC ruled that the Internet Service Providers shouldn't be considered common carriers. They were classified as lightly regulated "information service providers." At the time, the FCC stated that part of the purpose of this ruling was to open the Internet to many new providers. However, it quickly had the opposite effect and led to limiting ISP broadband competition. In short order, ISPs such as Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Time-Warner dominated.
The Quest for Net Neutrality
Tim Wu, a forward-thinking professor at Columbia Law School and former Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Senior Advisor, published a paper in 2003 called "Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination." This paper, the first to introduce Net neutrality into our lexicon, identified the limitations of a restricted Internet and proposed ideas and legislation to deal with the issues. The paper's opening paragraph identifies the conflicts between the private interests of broadband providers versus the public's interest in a free and open Internet as the impetus for pursuit of Net neutrality.
With Wu's paper as a backdrop, in 2007 several Comcast (an Internet broadband provider) customers filed a complaint with the FCC claiming that Comcast was purposely throttling network access for them to discourage their use of BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer file-sharing service. Attempting to impose Net neutrality on the situation, the FCC censured Comcast to stop arbitrarily restricting its network access. Comcast countered with a lawsuit.
The suit dragged on for years. During those years, the FCC tried, in ambiguous and timid ways, to further refine its stance on Net neutrality. In 2014, a federal court ruled against the FCC in the Comcast case, essentially saying, "You forced us to make this decision when you decreed that the Internet wasn't a common carrier." The court said that the FCC couldn't impose common carrier–based rules on Comcast when the FCC's own classification system dictates that Comcast isn't a common carrier. The court left the door open, a little, for the hope of Net neutrality by hinting that the FCC needs to reconsider the ways it classifies Internet Service Providers.
Fast Lanes and Slow Lanes
One of the FCC's suggested remedies to this Internet drama is the establishment of so-called "fast lanes." This essentially provides a slow lane and a fast lane, which many argue is simply idiomatic for "the haves" and "the have-nots." The FCC counters that when a company's Internet needs are "commercially reasonable," it can then ride in the fast lane. Detractors say that the fast lane favors established organizations and that there's really no such thing as using the slow lane to grow your business and hope to one day jump to the fast lane.
However, an absolute argument against fast lanes may be, at least a little, misguided. Internet access today for many large companies is driven by what is already in function, if not name, Internet fast lanes. Google, Facebook, and even lesser-known (at least in households) Akamai all derive benefit from direct connections and ISP-hosted dedicated hardware. And the Internet and all of its users benefit from these direct connections. A poorly worded—or even worse, misguided—directive about Internet fast lanes by the FCC could do more harm than good.
The Way I See It
I understand the need for measured, metered content. A customer streaming Netflix six hours a day puts more of a load on an ISP than a customer checking email on her phone. I'm willing to pay a reasonable charge to Netflix for it to pay for its fast lane. The key here is "measured and metered"; surcharges and throttled service shouldn't be arbitrary.
The proposed merger of Time-Warner and Comcast looms as at least as big a threat, if not bigger, to Net neutrality than fast lanes and slow lanes (if you agree, tell the FTC what you think). With bold strokes, Comcast strongly claims that this merger will be good for Net neutrality. That seems odd coming from the company whose lawsuit seven years ago pushed the entire issue to the edge.
The last thing the Internet needs is a monopoly-driven system that puts the desires of large corporations above the needs of public citizens. For the Internet to thrive and be all that we know it can be, we need the FCC to rule clearly and decisively and stop its ambiguous, wishy-washy ways. And citizens need to stand up and say what they think. Without our input, the Internet's fate is left to the whim of career politicians, lobbyists, and marketing departments.
The pioneers who brought us the Hush-a-Phone and the CarterFone would be very disappointed in the way things are going.