Door Closes to Open Internet, But All May Not Be Lost

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Wires hanging from the sky

Flickr / kraybon

In the words of Howard Beale, the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves in the movie Network, “Woe is us! We’re in a lot of trouble!” And, as Beale would shout, we should be mad as hell.

Issuing a decision that triggered dismay and anger among supporters of an Internet open and free to all, a federal appeals court on Tuesday overruled the Federal Communications Commission and set the stage for a near future in which such service providers as Verizon and AT&T could give preferential treatment to websites willing to pay a higher price for access and speed.

The ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is a potentially lethal blow to net neutrality – the principle that the Internet should be available equally to anyone who wishes to use it as a medium for creativity and information, regardless of who they are and no matter the size of their checkbooks.

The court ruled in a lawsuit filed by Verizon that “the FCC cannot subject companies that provide Internet service to the same type of regulation that the agency imposes on phone companies,” The New York Times reported. “It cited the FCC’s own decision in 2002 that Internet service was not a telecommunications service – like telephone or telegraph – but an information service, a classification that limits the FCC’s authority.”

The entertainment industry news site Variety noted, “The decision has broad implications for Internet businesses of all kinds, including Google, Yahoo, Netflix, Amazon.com, Apple and Facebook — as well as traditional media companies that rely on broadband networks for content distribution. The ruling for now establishes that government regulators can’t dictate how Internet service providers manage their networks and how they choose to prioritize data.”

In an Ask Me Anything discussion on Reddit Tuesday afternoon, telecommunications policy expert Susan Crawford further described the implications of the court decision:

It means that the major providers of high-speed Internet access in the US, who have systematically divided markets and tacitly agreed mostly not to compete with one another, can treat high-speed Internet access like a cable TV service. They can be gatekeepers, charge content providers (any business) for the privilege of reaching us, the subscribers; and, of course, charge us. A lot. For lousy service compared to, say, Stockholm or Seoul. 

In an official statement, Craig Aaron, president and CEO of the media reform group Free Press added, “[The court’s] ruling means that Internet users will be pitted against the biggest phone and cable companies — and in the absence of any oversight, these companies can now block and discriminate against their customers’ communications at will… They’ll establish fast lanes for the few giant companies that can afford to pay exorbitant tolls and reserve the slow lanes for everyone else.”

Nonetheless, the court’s decision could be reversed, either on appeal to the Supreme Court or by the FCC backing away from decisions it made during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations and taking a stronger stand on behalf of the American people instead of the Verizon’s and AT&T’s. In an article for The Huffington Post, Craig Aaron notes:

New FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler recently stated that the FCC must be able to protect broadband users and preserve the Internet’s fundamental open architecture. Now he has no other choice but to restore and reassert the FCC’s clear authority over our nation’s communications infrastructure.

… Now the free and open Internet is flat-lining. But Wheeler has the paddles in his hands and the power to resuscitate Net Neutrality. We’ll know soon if he has the political guts to use them. 

Wheeler, after the court’s decision was announced, said, “We will consider all available options, including those for appeal, to ensure that these networks on which the Internet depends continue to provide a free and open platform for innovation and expression, and operate in the interest of all Americans.”

But there will be congressional opposition. And the FCC has a long, sad track record of spinning pro-industry positions to make them sound good and good for you. It’s too soon to tell on which side Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the mobile phone and cable TV industries, ultimately will come down. Which means that once again, as has been the case so many times since this fight began, people have to stand up and be heard.

You can start by contacting the FCC chairman’s office and demanding that he and his colleagues stand resolute and forthright in favor of net neutrality, an Internet open to all.

Send an e-mail at the FCC’s website. Or tweet @TomWheelerFCC.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos.
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  • Gigi Dudley

    Why would the FCC take a stronger stand after the fact? Did not enough people stand up in arms? I know I signed several petitions against this.

  • Anonymous

    It most certainly is a form of communication. Skype, chats and in many other VOIP applications it is identical to radio, telephone and telegraph applications. The Court of Appeal is not very well versed on the uses of the internet and should defer from making judgement on something they do not understand. As ignorance of the law is no excuse neither is the ignorance of not knowing the facts.

  • cg

    I signed petitions too but of course this can’t be up for a popularity contest. First it has to be scrutinized by the law…

  • Rhonda Thissen

    Good point. It’s been 12 years since the FCC ruled that Internet service isn’t like phone service, and VoIP has expanded a lot since then. I work for a state government and we recently switched from standard phone service to VoIP. Maybe the expansion of voice communication by Internet will give them a reason to revisit that decision?

  • Anonymous

    The e-mail link is not working … 8:36 pm ET Wednesday

  • Steve McGrath

    Perhaps the ISP decided to block it. :-/

  • http://nomadicpolitics.blogspot.com/ Nomad

    “Internet service was not a telecommunications service – like telephone or telegraph – but an information service, a classification that limits the FCC’s authority.”

    That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. The best thing about the Net is that it is BOTH of these things and a whole lot more.

  • http://nomadicpolitics.blogspot.com/ Nomad

    It is just about as dumb as the FCC ruling that cable TV was not a broadcast medium and thus had limited authority. So they threw out the Fairness Doctrine and now we have Fox News.

  • Anonymous

    Which is why the giant corporations are eager to take it away from us.

  • Mr. Stephens

    Time for an appeal to the Supreme Court.

  • Jack

    Exactly, communication IS the internet, two computers sending packets of information between each other…

  • Anonymous

    Why do internet companies unionize against this? “You let everyone in equally (except illegal content), and we let your customers see us.”

  • TheStan

    But I thought it was fair and balanced :/

  • Anonymous

    How soon can this happen?

  • Jenkins

    It’s not the world, it’s just America. The supposed ‘land of the free’.

  • Locke Stock & Hobbes

    If we continue down this path against net neutrality we are severing the artery of one of the greatest inventions of all time. The failure to recognize the order of magnitude at which this issue stands and the detrimental implications it could potentially imply on the American public is almost unfathomable. God I hope the right thing is done here and my voice stands among many. A cheap and open internet for ALL is a logical right of a progressed civilization to be able to equally produce and access legal content without hindrance. To do otherwise is to create intellectual slavery in which only the rich are free to produce expensive, propagandized content and the search for truth is easily silenced. This is not television, this is the internet. Maybe I’m singing melodramatic here, but it seems without a doubt this issue stands in line with the corruption of Citizens United, the SOPA case, and the more recent NSA surveillance realities. Although the fallible American public has largely ignored or accepted these issues as a part of life, there will be a point where we break. I do understand that these are complicated matters, and that I have greatly appealed to pathos here, but it is important to understand the emotions behind this issue. We have tasted the nectar of freedom and we will not give it up without a fight. We can’t go back. Please stand with us.

    …. This is the letter I sent.

  • Lifé Crawford

    Everyone take time to notice something, the government is not going to allow something that they have to subsidize in order for it to exist. These are networks that are based on centers for them to work. In order to get what’s desired (a free internet) we need to decentralize the internet. Making it’s mainframe free to use has been something that’s been in the works since 2005, essentially through a wi-fi enabled node network, packets of encrypted content can travel through the space the same as they would through an IP, and an ISP. It’s a process that’s cutting out the middleman, and it’s the future.

    Admittedly I don’t know much about it, but I also never knew there was added efforts to make something happen on capitol hill. In my opinion we need not to use today’s technology and have a government entity subsidize it, but create a new technology based on our current needs, (free internet)

    The project exists, for anyone trying to be part of the movement.

    Here’s the wikipedia

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netsukuku

    and here’s the Reddit

    http://www.reddit.com/r/netsukuku/

  • ApodoFingido

    If any company actually starts metering my internet, I will travel to the ends of the Earth to find an alternate provider. Mark my words, you will be boycotted! (and hopefully many follow)

  • Anonymous

    all it takes is for youtube to say to the likes of verizon when they come demanding money to show their content is” give us money and we will not block your customers” and if verizon does not pay then they block verizon from accessing youtube, so many people will cancel their verizon accounts the gov will be lobbied to make sure the internet is open and free really free, not this net neutrality free they think is in their interest. imagine google turning round to isp’s and demanding money for their customers to access the google server farms. Damn verion would be paying out billions to internet services as their customers would flee their services if they did not pay, and the net neutrality laws give all of these services the power to charge isp’s to carry their services just as cable companies pay to supply content to their customers.

    Prices will go way up for isps that try to use net neutrality to improve income and customer prices will increase and all those isp’s that dont use net neutrality to make money from content suppliers will have access to all content freely as is the case now, this might just be the situation that destroys the big isp’s completely.

    And in areas where there is only one or two isp’s there will be a huge outcry and demand for google fibre like services. I see municipalities installing fibre and selling access to isp’s if they ignore net neutrality and supply free and open internet access.

  • sirald66

    This was achieved by telecoms dragging their feet on rural highs-speed internet expansion. Cable and telecom made a deal that if telecom didn’t force the FCC to regulate cable like telecom — then they would play nice with each other. This is when the FCC classed cable and internet as information services, not telecom services.

    Telecom, cable and internet run over networks known as infrastructure (ie telecom). Voice, text, web is the data transmitted (ie information). The industry is holding the FCC and consumer hostage.

  • Mark Wallin

    Lou said it best ,start walking more and visit friends .

  • Jack Haesly

    How is it that one judge can make a decision for 330 million people?

  • Anonymous

    Dear libertardians,

    Enjoy your new government-less free market internet. I’m sure it will be much faster and free-er now that it’s exclusively under control by the telecommunications monopolies who have absolutely no motivation to do any of the aforementioned things.

  • Anonymous

    You get up on your little 21” screen,
    And howl about America and democracy.
    There is no America.
    There is no Democracy.
    There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T,
    And Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon.
    Those are the nations of the world today.

  • sparkeyjames

    Nice plan but there’s one small problem. Meshnets are slow as molasses flowing uphill in the winter. Depending on user counts the speed would have you praying to go back to dialup speeds.

  • Karla Mackey

    I just switch to Verizon …I SIGNED this and I seen this happening nightly …I try to open an article and it slows down or won’t open… I have restart my phone…as I sit and yell at having 4G….The funny thing it sucks.. I am going to miss Credomobile ..But not their stupid phones too many issues and they refused to upgrade me .. and I love Credos’ petitions.. So now I will fight Verizon’s.. BULLSH#T!!!!

  • Edward Moriarty

    You got it right. They have seen the power of the internet in Arab Spring. You better believe the Oligarchical power structure of our society will take charge of the internet before allowing the masses to coordinate opposition to their economic rule of, by and for the ELITE!

  • Edward Moriarty

    The Ruling Elite are not going to allow US to have a means of mass communication that could coordinate opposition to their Rule. If they don’t ruin this time……they will before the people can use it as a tool against their power.

  • bluelightzero

    Nah. mesh networks are real freedom.

  • andrea salsedo

    Well said! These are pieces to a great puzzle, which, if completed, would show nothing but a black hole where a Human culture existed. Our freedom is under siege & we have little choice but to fight back.

  • The Distopian

    I fully expect this new bill to pass no matter how much opposition there is from the public. Nor do I foresee any real coverage of this issue on the media. Quit frankly the
    majority of the public are completely unaware of this current bill.

    When there are only a hand full of Internet providers and a hand full of TV/Cable/News providers who donate heavily to congress and the house of representatives for Quid Pro Quo. And when members of the FCC are also on the the boards of said companies. We the people don’t really have any say, unless your
    a large corporation of coarse, because they’re people too.

    #sigh# All I can really say is you have yourselves to blame. You vote for the
    most Jesus-ee candidate there is and don’t bother looking for where
    the money comes from. As for me I’m planning on getting out while I can, before exercising your first amendment gets you thrown into Guantanamo.

    I hear Sweden is nice :) .

    Good night and good luck in your new Orwellian world.

  • Ahnock

    This is worse than many of you think. Some people might just move somewhere else, where internet is faster, but almost half of the websites in the world originate in the US, and if this happens, moving away wont speed up the websites that can’t pay to be fast.
    I know that my internet has already been frustrating slow for years, and with this, I won’t be able to do anything online, like it or not. Television was an amazing innovative invention that changed everything, but the internet providers slowed it down, and smashed it into something no one wants now. Now that they have their eyes on the internet, prepare to either give it up, or lose a TON of money on any website at any time, and you probably wont even be able to use it due to the speed.
    ~A

  • Anonymous

    There it is. The old chokehold. They had better watch out. Governments have been known to nationalize essential infrastructure and resources.

  • JohnT

    It is called plutocracy. It shows its ugly face in rulings such as this, and other smack downs onto “we the taxpayers.”