January 27, 2014
Not So Neutral
By James Love
Recipient, 2013 Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation

A Washington, D.C. court ruled this month that Internet service providers in the United States will be allowed to deny or degrade the Internet connection to any website as they see fit. Analyst James Love argues that this violation of “net neutrality” stems from corruption in American politics.

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) “net neutrality” rules were established to ensure that leading Internet service providers do not block, or degrade the quality of the Internet connection to certain websites at the expense of others. On January 14, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit published an 81-page document that struck down these rules.

The court described the Internet as having four major participants: backbone networks that allows electronic information to flow from one place to another, broadband providers like Verizon or Comcast, edge providers (any website maker on the planet) , and end-users (people who use the Internet). According to the court ruling:

Proponents of net neutrality—or, to use the Commission’s preferred term, “Internet openness”—worry about the relationship between broadband providers and edge providers. They fear that broadband providers might prevent their end-user subscribers from accessing certain edge providers altogether, or might degrade the quality of their end-user subscribers’ access to certain edge providers, either as a means of favoring their own competing content or services or to enable them to collect fees from certain edge providers. Thus, for example, a broadband provider like Comcast might limit its end-user subscribers’ ability to access the New York Times website if it wanted to spike traffic to its own news website, or it might degrade the quality of the connection to a search website like Bing if a competitor like Google paid for prioritized access. (Page 6)

If Internet service providers are given the freedom to discriminate in this way, they will be able to effectively control which services provided over the Internet work best, or work at all. The handful of giant corporations that control connections to homes and mobile computing devices will consequently gain even more power. If unchecked, this could result in higher prices for services, barriers to innovation, and de facto censorship of information services.

While the court’s decision – which the U.S. Supreme Court may yet review – strikes down a particular FCC rule, many legal experts are of the opinion that it expands the FCC’s authority to act in other areas. The legal issues are technical and complex, but the challenges for the FCC in restoring a regulatory framework are largely political: in Washington, D.C., it is far easier to block new policy rules than to enact new ones.

The Internet is now the center of our economic, social, and cultural lives, and it should not be con- trolled by telephone and cable companies.

Washington has become a cesspool of corruption because of a series of court decisions that have eliminated the limits on corporate contributions to candidates for electoral offices.

No one knows for sure how much money the large telephone and cable television companies that control the broadband services spend on political campaigns, because there are countless ways to use third parties, such as law firms, consultants, and related businesses, to make contributions or to influence elections.

Verizon, the company that sued the FCC to overturn the net neutrality rules, can donate directly to candidates, political action committees (PACs), Super PACs, and outside groups, and can donate both “hard money” and “soft money” to political parties. It can also hire an army of former Congressional, White House, and FCC staffers, and donate millions of dollars to hundreds of non-profit organizations.

Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig rightly says that corruption is the root problem in politics right now, and it is front and center in the net neutrality debate. But with the stakes so high, and so many people and businesses impacted by the decision, it may be possible to enact new protections that ensure that broadband Internet service providers do not have the last word on what services work best, or work at all. The Internet is now the center of our economic, social, and cultural lives, and it should not be controlled by telephone and cable companies.

James LoveJames Love is the Director of Knowledge Ecology International (KEI). In 2013, Love received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award, to recognize leaders who extend freedom and innovation in the realm of information technology. He advises UN agencies, governments, and numerous NGOs.