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How Tom Wheeler's FCC plan will wreck your Internet

Mike Elgan | May 19, 2014
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal is brilliant because it takes the U.S. as far away from net neutrality as possible by presenting the killing of net neutrality and making it sound like the opposite.

Note that net neutrality is about the connection between your ISP and your home — the so-called "last mile." It has nothing to do with the connection between the source of data and the ISP.

ISPs aren't going to offer net neutrality voluntarily, so government regulation is necessary to make it happen. The question is: How much regulation? How neutral should the Net be?

At one end of the spectrum, there is true net neutrality through maximum regulation. The ISPs would be re-designated as "public utilities" or "common carriers" like the phone system. That would give the federal government the legal right to dictate service levels, prices — everything. This is the option favored by many Silicon Valley companies, by entrepreneurs and by the general public, for the most part.

At the other end of the spectrum is zero net neutrality and zero regulation. The ISPs can sell priority to the highest bidder and even provide exclusivity to sources of data — for example, without regulation, Netflix could pay Comcast to stop delivering HBO Go programming over the "last mile." If HBO doesn't like it, they can pay up. This is the option favored by the companies Wheeler has spent his career working for.

Because the idea of total regulation — the "public utility" option — is so unacceptable to the powerful ISP industry and also to many conservative Republicans, the FCC has avoided proposals that would institute this status or label for ISPs. Instead, we have a de facto net neutrality situation without that designation.

Net neutrality is very hard to kill in the U.S. It has been a fundamental principle of the Internet since its inception and is backed by just about every major person and company involved in creating and building the Internet. No one has ever been able to figure out how to steal net neutrality from the public.

Until now.

Wheeler's indecent proposal

The FCC voted Thursday on Wheeler's new rules for net neutrality. They approved the motion to allow the rules to go forward and to seek public comment on the question of making ISPs "common carriers."

Wheeler said his proposal doesn't allow for "paid prioritization" — favored access for the companies that pay ISPs for faster and more reliable data connections — but in fact it does, and that's one point left open for public comment. Under the proposal, ISPs are free to sell fast access for certain types of content, as long as they can show that it does no harm.

He claimed net neutrality is preserved, and that consumers won't be harmed because he said the FCC won't allow ISPs to slow down users' connections beyond what they pay for.


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