Lawmakers in Washington are debating the future of the internet. How much should it be regulated? Or should it be regulated? These are some of the questions at the heart of the debate over net neutrality.
Tom Klancer knows a thing or two about the internet. He works for a company that designs software that helps businesses automate their workflow, and he says he’s concerned about the future of the internet. He’s particularly worried about what might happen if the Federal Communications Commission spikes rules that limit how his internet service provider might manipulate his access to the World Wide Web.
“Say they’re providing a service for medical information, and I actually would prefer the information from WebMD because their information actually isn’t very good. Well I can’t go to WebMD because it happens to conflict with their service.”
Back in 2015, the Obama-era FCC adopted what’s known as the Open Internet Rule, which basically declared that internet service providers are “common carriers” — companies that transport things or people, like telephones or railroads or even pipelines. That means they’re regulated under Title 2 of the Communications Act. Now the Trump-era FCC may be on the verge of spiking those rules.
"Unfortunately where I think this is headed is at the moment not a great place. I think that the FCC is clearly intent on voting down Title 2 regulations. But I think that a court battle will inevitably ensue.”
Klancer was one of dozens of people who showed up at a recent town hall meeting on the subject, hosted by Democratic Congressman Don Beyer.
"If you put a bunch of people in a room, everyone will agree that net neutrality is itself a good idea. But in fact, when you listen to the Verizon, AT&T, Cox — their government affairs folks will all say we’re for net neutrality too. The problem is we have different definitions of net neutrality.”
Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler took part in Beyer’s town hall and warned of a concerted effort in Washington to undo the rules he helped write.
“Their repeal is being championed by a handful of companies, and you basically know who those companies are: Comcast, AT&T, and Charter.”
Wheeler says the Open Internet Rule that allows the government to regulate internet service providers as common carriers is an example of what he calls agile regulation — an attempt to deal with the fact that technology is changing faster than regulators in Washington can write rules to keep up.
“It’s being held up as one of the reasons why the current administration wants to get rid of the open internet rules because, 'well we don’t know what that means in five or ten years.’ Damn right you don’t, and that’s why it’s there.”
Critics of the FCC rules say they’re yet another example of the federal government overreaching.
“Companies like AOL, America Online, which created basically a mass-market internet, did not do so as common carriers regulated under what are now called net neutrality rules. They came in under a deregulatory environment.”
That’s Thomas Hazlett, professor at Clemson University and director of the Information Economy Project.
“Companies like AOL actually charged Google to be the default search engine, and Google had to pay money to get into that market.”
He says these rules Beyer and others are getting so worked up over haven’t been around all that long, and so their influence is questionable.
“It’s not as if we had these rules and created the internet with these rules, quite the reverse. The open internet developed under a much more open environment, much less regulated. And I will say that there is regulation even in that space, and that is called antitrust.”
That sentiment was not the prevailing mood at Don Beyer’s town-hall forum in Arlington, which featured former FCC general counsel Jonathan Sallet.
“When you upload a video to YouTube or a photo to Facebook, are you expecting to put a message that’s going to arrive exactly as you composed it or not? That legal question is at the heart of this.”
Congressman Beyer took dozens of questions from constituents who are clearly concerned that ditching the Open Internet rules would be a big mistake. Ultimately, he said, even if the FCC throws the rules in the garbage can, the comments people send to the FCC could become important in a legal challenge down the line. Meanwhile, he told one constituent:
“It still makes a difference to contact members of Congress. I’m OK on this issue I think for you. But there are another seven Republicans in the Virginia delegation. You can call them.”
The FCC has already received more than five million comments, although one congressman asked the attorney general to look into whether bots were flooding the agency with fake comments. The deadline for submitting comments runs through mid-July, which could mean a long hot summertime debate over the future of the internet.