In effect, the keys to the future of the internet have just been handed over to the FCC, not just today, not just this group, but anyone who ever steps into that position. Ever.
Everything is marketing. Observe: Want to overturn basic protections from unlawful government searches and seizures? Just write some new laws and bundle them up in something called the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.” The media will universally and unquestioningly refer to it as the USA PATRIOT Act and you can paint any would-be detractors as disloyal terrorists. Bingo. Done.
Want to do damage control after the illegal surveillance activities of your National Security Agency have been revealed to the general public? Simple. Get some of the agency's biggest critics in the House to forward a bill that promises to protect everyone from the illegal surveillance. Call it the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring Act” so everyone gets the idea that this about protecting USA FREEDOM. Then add a bunch of provisions during the passage of the bill that hardwire in all the worst surveillance abuses and make sure no one will ever be held accountable for them. No sweat. Done.
Want to implement total federal regulatory control over the internet? No problem. Just call it “Net Neutrality” and watch trendy internet activists blindly rally around the idea, even though they can't read the actual laws underlying it. Piece of cake. Done.
For those who aren't up on their lingo, "net neutrality" refers to a network (in this case, the internet) in which all data is treated equally. In practical terms, this means that your ISP can't form a special deal with a big company like Netflix to let their data pass through the network more quickly (prioritizing traffic) or relegate other sites to an internet "slow lane" where data passes to users more slowly (throttling traffic). It also means that ISPs can't interfere with traffic based on protocol (like when Comcast tried to block peer-to-peer file sharing), perform "deep packet inspection" to censor certain types of data (like that employed in the national censorship schemes in Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, Iran and elsewhere), or favoring private networks (like Comcast did in a special deal with Microsoft).
Now let's make one thing clear: net neutrality is a good thing for the average internet user and it's only the real-life grinches at the cable companies or certain misguided libertarians who think that throttling won't be used against them who argue otherwise. But it's easy to get everyone (or basically everyone) to agree on the goal. It ends up being much more important how you get there.
Before we get into the specifics of the FCC regulation that has just radically transformed the ISP industry in the United States, let's just take a moment to review who it is that is supposedly championing the little guy by implementing it.
Firstly we have Tom Wheeler, the current FCC Chairman. Even that bastion of truthiness Wikipedia has it right when it describes him as "an American businessman and politician" in that order and in that many words. He is the chairman of the FCC, and, as such, the "defender of the public interest" entrusted with regulating the cable companies and telecoms. So what did he do before becoming FCC Chairman? Oh, that's right, he's the former President of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the former CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. Yes, the man who has presided over the most significant regulatory framework ever imposed on the internet in the history of the United States is a lifelong lobbyist for the very industry he is supposedly regulating (the only ever double inductee of the Wireless Hall of Fame and the Cable Television Hall of Fame, no less).
But the regulatory plan that the FCC ultimately adopted wasn't Wheeler's. In fact, it was proposed by the Liar-in-Chief himself, Obama, last November. That's right, the same man who was against warrantless wiretapping before he was for it. The same man whose second largest campaign donor was Goldman Sachs and who supported the bank bailouts from the get go. The same man who promised to close Guantanamo and promised not to appoint any lobbyists to his administration. The same man who oversees a secret presidential kill list that allows him to mark anyone on the planet (even American citizens) for death without so much as a court trial. But trust him on this one, guys. He's got your back.
"But all of this is circumstantial," the dear trusting internet activists will argue. "Show us the proof that these net neutrality rules isn't what they say it is!" Would that it could have been refuted before it was voted on. Sadly, in an all-too-familiar repeat of the we-passed-the-PATRIOT-Act-without-reading-it syndrome and the "you'll have to pass the bill to find out what's in it" disease, the new FCC regulations, too, were held secret from the public until after the plan was voted on last month. It was finally published (all 400 pages of it) on the FCC's website earlier this week, but before that all that was available was a five-page press release of fluffy rhetoric about "preserving the internet." In other words: "Trust us. Have we ever lied to you?"
So what did the FCC actually do? It reclassified internet service providers as common carriers under Title II of the Federal Communications Act of 1934. Previously, cable modem service and wireless broadband service had been classified under the far less regulated status of "information services" under Title I of the Communications Act. Now the FCC has the authority (even if it claims it won't use it at the moment) to regulate the practices and agreements that ISPs engage in and even the rates which they charge their customers.
Or, translating from legalese gobbledygook: the internet is now classified by the U.S. government as a public utility and treated in the same way that the phone system was treated back in the days of Ma Bell. Yes, US ISPs are now subject to the same regulations that created the AT&T monopoly and arguably held back advancements in the telecommunications industry by half a century or more.
What does this mean?
It means that the US ISP industry is now in a "whack-a-mole" environment of uncertain implications that will be subject to massive litigation in the coming years.
It means that local, state and federal fees that apply specifically to Title II services will create billions of dollars in new charges that will be shunted on to American internet users.
It means that ISPs and wireless providers who are already struggling to break into a competition-adverse market will have an even harder time as a host of new legal roadblocks and pitfalls are placed in their way, and lawyers and consultants become necessary to ensure compliance with industry standard practices.
But most chillingly of all it means that any future bunch of FCC commissioners (or even this particular bunch if they so desire) will wield broad powers to enforce vaguely-written rules over any service on the internet in any way they see fit. In effect, the keys to the future of the internet have just been handed over to the FCC, not just today, not just this group, but anyone who ever steps into that position. Ever.
And it's not just fringe conspiracy theorists like me that think the FCC has just given itself far too much power to regulate the internet as it sees fit. Even the EFF, one of the main (Soros-funded) groups arguing for net neutrality in the first place wrote a letter to the FCC arguing against the vague, ominous "general conduct" provision that allows the FCC to regulate against anything it decides will cause "harm" to consumers or content providers. The clause is so nebulous as to allow any FCC Commission to effectively attempt to regulate against any practice, standard or company it wishes in the future.
Don't worry, though, the FCC promises it won't use most of the power its given itself...at this point. Just like Obama promised he wouldn't use the indefinite detention clause in the 2012 NDAA. Just like Bush promised all that NSA wiretapping business was above board and legal. Go on, trust them. Has a politician ever lied to you?
If the problem is the threat of an overly restricted internet, does anyone really think that the answer is another layer of government bureaucracy operating with a 400-page instruction manual to micromanage the most pervasive and free network ever devised using a carte blanche "general conduct" clause?
And if that isn't the answer, is there an alternative way of ensuring net neutrality? One that doesn't require government "regulation" by bought-and-paid for corporate lobbyists?
As a matter of fact, there is. It doesn't take an Economics professor to realize that the best way to ensure the consumer gets what he/she wants is to foster competition for services. In that regard, the average American household is stuck with, at best one or two major broadband providers, and has to take what they're given...
...Unless, that is, they create their own competition. I've talked before on The Corbett Report about wireless mesh networking as an alternative to the existing internet backbone. Although this technology truly does offer the promise of an alternate infrastructure that evades the current NSA track-and-control matrix and could be configured to be as neutral (or not-neutral) as its users want, the idea of a wireless mesh network that could truly rival the scope and penetration of the existing internet is not realistic in the short term. In the meantime, though, mesh networking could still be used to harness an already untapped potential of available bandwidth: unlicensed spectrum, i.e. the wi-fi connections that remain locked away behind passwords by their owners. As Peter van Valkenburgh writes in a compelling Wired op-ed, the combination of bitcoin micropayments, traffic encryption, and peer routing could create a mesh network that would in effect be a ready-to-go competition to the broadband monopoly giants. In effect, a community of interest could set up its own broadband network by pooling together the resources of its constituent members. The best part about this plan? It's the peer-to-peer economy at play in the process of providing peer-to-peer connections through a peer-to-peer network itself. Talk about Inception.
Of course, now that we have Title II regulation of the internet, the FCC could regulate that such community broadband efforts are against the interests of the public and thus impermissible. And so here we find ourselves yet again subject to the whims and fancies of a bunch of bureaucrats and their political puppetmasters.
Whatever else there may be to say about this subject, there's at least one important lesson to take from this: everything is marketing. Just calling the wholesale regulation of the internet "net neutrality" made it possible in the first place. Perhaps the freedom movement can do some marketing of its own to sell the idea that freedom is the answer to every political question.
Anyone got a catchy slogan?
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