Many of us cannot escape logging onto the Internet daily either paying bills, learning about the news, interacting with friends on social networking sites, or just checking e-mail. But what if you find yourself having problems accessing the certain website because the gatekeepers of the Internet are discriminating between favored and disfavored uses of the Internet? Or if AT&T or Comcast made it slower and harder to access Gmail or Hotmail, while making easier to access their preferred email service? Can you imagine what your world would be like?
Welcome to the fight over net neutrality, a battle that has been brewing for years.
At a time when more and more broadband users are frequently using sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other innovations, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress are deciding the future of the Internet; whether the Internet will continue to be an explosion of creativity, or become a decentralized, participatory and democratic communications.
As someone who observed the rise of the broadband market, it is troubling to learn 73 Democrats are willing to sell out their constituents and their president by siding with the greedy phone and cable companies. They have joined with 37 Senate Republicans, who signed an industry-written letter demanding the Federal Communications Commission to halt all efforts to protect Internet users. So it came as a surprise to learn all three of San Antonioâ€™s lawmakers – Rep Charlie Gonzalez (TX-20), Rep Ciro Rodriguez (TX-23), and Rep Henry Cuellar (TX-28) â€“ were included in the Democrat group that has decided to oppose the Obama Administrationâ€™s telecom agenda for better broadband and Net Neutrality.
Net Neutrality: What is it?
Before I get to the heart of this debate, I feel it is important to explain the meaning of “net neutrality” because even a simple Google search can get confusing. In the simplest terms, net neutrality can best be defined as the principle that allows an Internet user access to the Internet without fear of their Internet Service Provider (AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon) blocking or limiting their access to it. This principle has prevented ISPs from censoring content for any reason or favoring a specific website, service, or application based on its content, message, or ownership. The “non-discrimination” concept has been the guiding principle for the Internet since its inception, and at one time it was the law.
Starting with the basics, at the time the Internet was considered a novelty, gaining access to it was done through the telephone network. The telephone companies had nothing to do with the content the users accessed. As the cable industry entered the market in the late â€™90s, they too followed, these rules.
From 1996-2002, Internet users had no problem choosing an Internet provider because small Internet service providers in the era of dial-up service had equal access to home users because their services were provided over the telephone network which were regulated as common carriers. By 2001, more than half of all U.S. homes were connected to the Internet through “dial-up.” As Americans became familiar with the Internet’s capabilities, the demand for better service also increased. Both the telephone and cable companies responded in kind by improving their networks by increasing their speeds; the arrival of broadband.
However, all of this changed starting in 2002 as the Bush-era FCC began stripping away these protections. As the chairman of the FCC, Michael Powell believed that regulation stifled innovation, which he then led the charge for deregulation. Powell believed that internet access was a luxury than a necessity, thereby dismissing the idea of a digital divide. During a press conference, Powell mocked the idea by comparing it to a Mercedes divide in which he stated “I think there is a Mercedes divide. I would like to have one, but I can’t afford one.”
As the cable industry started to provide high speed access, smaller ISPs like wanted to use their cables in the same manner like common carriers. Since these cables were privately owned by the cable companies, in March 2002, the FCC classified cable Internet service as an â€œinformation serviceâ€ rather than a “telecommunications service.” Hoping to reverse the FCC’s decision, Brand X, a small Internet service provider based in California, took the FCC to court.
In 2005, the Supreme Court evaluated the FCC’s decision to classify broadband Internet access service as an information service. In a 6-to-3 decision, the court ruled in favor of the Powell Commission’s decision to classify cable modem service as an “information service” and not a “telecommunications service.” Under the 1996 Telecommunications Act, information service providers are not subject to the open access regulations that are applied to telecommunications providers, such as DSL companies. The Court’s ruling gave the new FCC Chairman, Kevin Martin, the legal grounds to reclassify broadband delivery to the phone companies as an “information service.”
Since then, some Internet providers have already started discriminating against certain applications. In 2007, two incidents exposed the telcosâ€™ gatekeeper ambitions. In September 2007, the New York Times revealed that Verizon Wireless had prevented NARAL Pro-Choice America from sending text messages to its own members. A month earlier, AT&T had censored the live Webcast of the rock group Pearl Jam, when singer Eddie Vedder’s began criticizing President Bush. These episodes showed that when given the option, phone companies willing to discriminate content they don’t like.
The Issue: Access vs. Openness
Why the battle over the Internet?
The battle lines began to form when the Bush-era FCC adopted a set of principles in 2005 saying “consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice;” however, the principles provided vague guidance by permitting providers’ “reasonable network management.”
Shortly after the FCC adopted a set of principles, Internet users were rope-a-doped into believing that the broadband service providers would not “[block] access to video or P2P services.”
It was not until an investigation by Associated Press that relieved that Comcast was degrading and blocking traffic from BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer file sharing protocol used for transferring large files, from it’s service network. The results from the Associated Press’ investigation confirmed tests done by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
However, BitTorrent was not the only application Comcast was blocking.
As a former Comcast customer, I immediately experienced connectivity issues while downloading the online game, World of Warcraft. While downloading, my internet connection would suddenly slow to a crawl to the point it would suddenly die because my router was forced to renew my IP address. Before Comcast was exposed, I had heard rumors that Comcast was interference with BitTorrent traffic. After doing a little digging, I was not the only experiencing this problem. I have found that Comcast is being overzealous in throttling every file sharing application, such as Shareaza. This would include World of Warcraft because Blizzard relies on BitTorrent to download the game and all it’s patches. The result, it took over a day and half to complete before I could start playing. It certainly was not for the faint of heart.
My experience also confirms other reports about sudden decreases in download speeds. Kevin Kanarski has reported that Lotus Notes (a suite of software that many businesses use for email, calendaring and file sharing) is also being interfered with.
Comcast justified their actions by citing “reasonable network management” as their legitimate excuse to degrade an applicationâ€™s performance. However, the FCC rejected their reasoning and ordered Comcast to stop slowing down BitTorrent users before the end of the year. In addition, the company has to disclose all “network managing” practices. Comcast sued, saying that the FCC didn’t have the authority to enforce net neutrality.
In early April, the FCC was dealt a blow when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the FCC lacks the authority to protect Internet users against network operators. The ruling effectively gave corporate gatekeepers control over Internet users’ online experience, and it called into question the FCC’s ability to act as a public interest watchdog over our country’s communications media.
The common question consumers asked in search of high speed Internet access for their homes, which is better, DSL Internet vs Cable Internet. It is in this area that broadband providers view consumer ignorance on Internet protocol profitable.
The broadband providers had help when the FCC decided that anything that is faster than dial up would now be an “information service” and no longer a “telecommunications service.” It also allowed the “connection to the Internet”, as well as the network used for higher speed to now be considered one thing – “broadband services.”
Without getting to technical, broadband services means the way a person connects to the Internet whenever your computer is turned on. Cable modems and residential DSL are two of several high-speed Internet technologies grouped under the term “broadband services.”
When I enrolled in an eCommerce certification program, cable internet was starting to be introduced. While cable internet was considered faster than DSL, there was a down side, with cable, each household had to share available bandwidth with other broadband subscribers, which could comprised of 500-2,000 home networks. A fact, that cable companies continue to downplay.
Cable providers providers downplay this information by providing half-truths. A common complaint among cable subscribers are slow speeds.
DSL does not have that problem since broadband access to Internet services is provide through existing phone lines. In other words, DSL services connect the subscriber’s home directly to the local telephone company’s Central Office.
Ignorance is bliss
When it comes to the Internet. people donâ€™t really care how they are connected so long as they are connected. As long as they feel that it is fast and consistent, they have no dog in this fight. The reason, opinion about issues they are not familiar with made by the experts. This belief was echoed by FCC Commissioner McDowell in his Washington Post editorial, “[t]he Internet has … operated under the principle that engineers … solve engineering problems.” In other words, leave the engineering to the engineers.
This is the reason people are perplexed by this issue, coverage of this issue in the media is nowhere near the extent needed. Recently, FCC commissioned Abt/SRBI and Princeton Survey Research Associates International to gauge the Internet speeds users are getting in their homes and mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablet computers. They found that 80 percent of broadband users in the U.S. do not know the speed of their broadband connection.
The current power grab involves lobbyists, unscrupulous legislators, phony front groups and the most powerful telecommunications companies in the world. Instead of sticking to the core issue, all sorts of irrelevancies and misinformation is used to undermine trust and scare off the public.
Soon after FCC Chair Genachowski’s decided to reclassify broadband and protect net neutrality, Wall Street Journal reported net neutral proponents were going to fight to the end by conducting a massive lobbying campaign to stop broadband reform. .
National Broadband Plan would help more than 93 million people get online. Chairman Genachowski has laid out the right plan to restore the Commission’s authority over broadband networks and provide a stable legal foundation for our nation’s most critical communications infrastructure.
In an era of free market capitalism, any industry that can gain the wealth and prestige necessary to enter the halls of power are able to sway the opinions of the political establishment to influence policies that will help them double their wealth. The telecommuncication industry continues to fly below the radar as one of America’s newest oligarchy â€” a group that gains political power because of its economic power, and then uses that political power for its own benefit. The FCC’s rule changes has allow them the increase their earnings by creating new revenue steams that have transmuted into political power through campaign contributions and the lure of the revolving door.
I have been troubled that several groups have seemed to accept the arguments made by the telecom companies, and are now either opposing or are skeptical about Net Neutrality protections. In rural West Texas, Rep. Ciro Rodriguez’s Congressional District, some still lack connectivity that allows them to get online without the hassles of dial-up. The question isnâ€™t just whoâ€™s connected to the Internet, but why is supporting big cable and phone companies who are forcing poor communities choose between fair representation and access?
As a fellow social worker, I am troubled by the disregard of the social work code of ethics “to enhance human wellÂbeing and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”
As for my own Representative, Charlie Gonzalez is certainly not following in his father’s footsteps. Where was Henry B was known for not taking political contributions from special interests. More importantly, at a time when Democrats are facing increasingly heavy public skepticism and criticism for the lack of courage to stand up to the special interest, the absence of Henry B Gonzalez is missed for the courage he demonstrated in opposing powerful interest groups and so ably serving the people of his district and the nation.” It was his acceptance speech for John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award father that inspire me to get involve in politics.
In my time I have had the honor to be vilified for standing up against segregation. I have had the privilege of being a thorn in the side of unprincipled privilege, and the great joy of being demonized by entrenched special interests. I have had the special pride of seeing hard jobs completed: the great civil rights laws; the cleanup of corruption in the savings and loan industry; the enactment of Federal laws that help educate the poor, care for the sick, eradicate disease, and house the people. And I have endured the impatience and humiliation that comes along with sometimes falling short of the goal.
While I may be disappointed they their recent actions, I still hold out hope they will come around and support Net Neutrality. If not, don’t be surprised if their next primary election is their last.