The turnabout in Chairmen Wheeler’s position on net neutrality is a case study of democracy in action. The New York Times reports that the FCC received over 4 million comments on last year’s proposed new rules. Those comments, and plenty of commentary by technologists, public interest groups and other political analysts, moved President Obama to step out forcefully in favor of net neutrality. Wheeler, a Democrat, took the hint. Indeed, his new proposed measures are said to go even further than those suggested by the President when he released his video message on this matter last fall.
Always more complicated than a summary can master, the new path can nonetheless be boiled down to two points. First, rather than propose new rules, Wheeler now proposes a reclassification of the Internet from an information service to telecommunication. In short, that means that the FCC can regulate the Internet as if it were a utility, such as telephone services are, instead of leaving it in a classification that spares the heavy hand of government. Net neutrality principles are imbedded in this new classification. Remember a few years ago when Verizon initially disallowed NARAL from buying text messaging services, and then when reminded of regulatory requirements not to discriminate content reversed their position? That is as good an example as any of how rules under this classification support net neutrality.
There are other benefits as well. Take a look at your landline telephone bill. You will notice more than the standard taxes. Historically the FCC has used those taxes for a number of public services such as the expansion of telephone service into remote geographic areas where it was not immediately market profitable for telecommunication providers to go, or for TTY, or text display devices, originally designed for people with auditory disabilities to use telephone services. Broadband expansion and Internet disability services are critical public policy issues that this reclassification may help to address.
But do you still have a landline? That question goes then to the second point. With the conversion of consumer telephone service from landline to mobile, the question has emerged how to classify that service, since it is a hybrid of telephone and data networking. Commissioner Wheeler’s plan includes bringing mobile services under the same umbrella so as not to create an ever-enlarging loophole in the overall plan.
What do I think? Given the political realities inside the beltway, the relationship between the White House and Congress specifically, I can’t imagine a better proposal. Take me out of the beltway and into my imagination, I would propose a new category that would address the Internet as the world-historical phenomenon that it is, rather than stuffing it into an antiquated technological category. But I repeat myself from many past blogs. Enough said now: let’s get behind this proposal.
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