Protesters march past the FCC headquarters before the Commission meeting on net neutrality proposal on May, 15, 2014 in Washington.
Bill O'Leary—The Washington Post/Getty Images
By Haley Sweetland Edwards
September 10, 2014

A vast coalition of Internet businesses and activists, as well as two top Congressional Democrats, launched a series of loud new public relations campaigns Wednesday in support of “net neutrality,” the notion that Internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all web content equally, no matter the source.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called on the Federal Communications Commission Tuesday to prevent ISPs, such as Comcast, Verizon or Time Warner Cable, from treating web content differently.

Their appeals came just a day before the Internet Association, Battle for the Net, and the American Sustainable Business Council launched new campaigns Wednesday calling for the FCC to pass new Open Internet protections.

While Leahy, Pelosi, and the advocacy groups are not all united behind one solution, all have slammed the FCC’s current proposed rules on net neutrality, which were first presented in April and may be finalized as early as this year. The public comment period ends Sept. 15.

The FCC’s proposed rules have been sharply criticized for allowing web companies to pay ISPs to deliver their content more quickly and in higher quality than companies that do not pay for faster service. Internet advocates argue that allowing such “paid prioritization”—widely known as Internet “fast lanes”—would give the richest incumbent companies, which can can afford to pay a premium, an unfair advantage over struggling start-ups and mom-and-pop operations that often operate on shoestring budgets.

Others worry that such fast lanes would fundamentally undermine the Wild West-style free market of ideas and commerce on the Internet, where you don’t have to be a billionaire to attract millions of new customers overnight to your site.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has insisted repeatedly that paid prioritization would help vital new industries that rely on lightning-fast download speeds, particularly in the e-medicine and online education spaces, to make their way online. Leahy will hold a Congressional hearing next week on the subject.

The Internet Association, an umbrella group uniting Silicon Valley’s biggest, most powerful tech giants—including Google, Amazon, Facebook and Ebay—launched a new campaign Wednesday afternoon. It includes a video and an online comic demanding better net neutrality protections. The association also submitted formal comments (PDF) to the FCC warning the agency to ignore the “flawed arguments of broadband gatekeepers that seek to control speech on the Internet, censor content, and segregate the Internet into fast and slow lanes.”

The Internet Association’s position on net neutrality is particularly important in the public dialogue because its member companies are mainly large incumbents that could theoretically benefit from paid prioritization deals edging out their smaller competitors. Instead, these large companies have insisted that the Internet marketplace must remain friendly to the tiniest start-ups, which are often the source of “the next big thing.”

Meanwhile, another coalition of Internet advocates convened Wednesday behind a different, similar campaign, Battle for the Net, which is also critical of the FCC’s proposed rules and calls for better ones. Battle for the Net includes 27 progressive advocacy organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and MoveOn.org, as well as dozens of tech companies, including Twitter, Tumblr, Netflix, Kickstarter, Etsy, and Vimeo.

Those companies, along with thousands of smaller websites, took part in a “day of action” Wednesday in which they displayed on their home pages an icon symbolizing a slow-loading website. When visitors click on that icon, they are invited to sign the Battle for the Net’s letter to the FCC and to contact their member of Congress.

While the Battle for the Net coalition’s gripes are similar to those of the Internet Association, the Battle for the Net goes farther in pointing at a specific solution. It, along with Pelosi, asks that the FCC categorize ISPs as a “Title II” industry, a move that would give the agency legal jurisdiction to strictly regulate the companies that own the Internet “pipes” — or the fiber that the Internet runs on. The Internet Association, while leaving what is known as the “Title II option” on the table, has stopped short of actively advocating for that end.

The debate over net neutrality is at this point intrinsically intertwined with a discussion of the Title II option, which itself hinges on a rather arcane detail in administrative law. In January, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the FCC’s previous rules on net neutrality on the grounds that the agency does not have legal jurisdiction over ISPs since they do not fall under “Title II” of the regulators’ statute. Public advocacy groups, like Free Press, which organized Battle for the Net, argue that the FCC should simply fix that problem, since it’s up to the agency to decide how it categorizes different industries.

But here’s where the discussion really heats up. Big ISPs, like Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable, as well as their trade associations, have said that the Title II option, which would allow the FCC to treat ISPs like telephone companies, would unleash a storm of suffocating regulation. They say that if they are regulated “like public utilities,” they would have no incentive to invest hundreds of millions every year in researching and developing new technologies, much less maintaining and improving the network of pipes and wires that connect American homes to the World Wide Web.

Advocates for the Title II option say the ISPs, which enjoy monopolies and duopolies in most American cities and towns, should be regulated strictly, but argue that categorizing ISPs under Title II would actually lead to fewer regulations. The categorization would allow the FCC to pass a simple, blanket, easy-to-enforce rule on net neutrality for all ISPs, they say, rather than going at it piecemeal. Some advocates say that by avoiding the Title II option, the FCC is wading into unnecessary red tape. The agency’s current proposed rules call for the formation of a special ombudsman office within the FCC where federal bureaucrats would manually review when web companies paid ISPs for premium service.

The issue of net neutrality rocketed into national headlines earlier this year after Netflix accused big ISPs, like Comcast and Verizon, of deliberately slowing down streaming speeds and causing streaming videos to buffer. After Netflix paid the ISPs a fee, the download speeds increased. ISPs say such deals are only fair now that a handful of companies, like Netflix and Google’s YouTube, dominate the majority of web traffic during primetime hours.

It’s unclear when exactly the debate surrounding net neutrality will end. The FCC could finalize its proposed rules on net neutrality in the next few months or, if public pressure mounts, it could be forced to return to the drawing board early next year. President Obama, who has been a vociferous advocate for net neutrality–and a critic of “fast lanes” on the Internet–has stopped short, but just barely, of condemning the FCC’s proposed rules.

With rising populist anger, a raft of new PR campaigns, and Silicon Valley tech firms set to be major political campaign contributors in 2016, something’s likely to break soon.

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