Who owns the Internet? Who runs it? The answer is, nobody. It’s a complex, interconnected collection of wires and websites, each equally accessible to all, each offering something — email, information, commerce, political views — to anyone who wants to see or use them. It’s an electronic democracy, meritocracy, innovation factory.
Or was. All those social goods are threatened by a federal decision last week that rejected the Federal Communications Commission’s attempt to enforce level, open Internet access — also known as “net neutrality.”
This is going to affect every Internet user. It will allow your friendly Internet service provider, Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner, Comcast — which are monopolies or at best duopolies in most places around the country — to discriminate. They can block certain websites if they want or charge you more for them. They can sell access, placement, data capacity or speed to those websites that will give them the best deal.
For example, they can slow down Netflix’s movie streaming (a popular alternative to cable premium movie channels) or YouTube; they can favor Twitter pictures over Instagrams or L.L. Bean over Land’s End; they can pick and choose among political or media websites. Big companies with deep pockets and existing customers will be able to gain advantage and reduce or eliminate competition, especially from smaller, newer, innovative ones.
The court isn’t to blame; it’s the FCC, which chose the wrong regulatory and legal strategy. In the interest of deregulation last decade, it refrained from using its broad powers over the telecommunications industry to treat these Internet service providers as common carriers, the way traditional telephone companies have been treated, and require them to provide equal access to all legal sites.
When the commission issued new rules in 2010 with such a requirement, the Open Internet Order, Verizon sued. And the court last week decided that, absent common carrier classification or a specific statute, the FCC doesn’t have the authority to impose these rules.
That can be fixed by either the FCC or Congress, and it needs to be — quickly.