What journalists need to know about the new net neutrality battle

Tuesday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai released his plan to roll back net neutrality rules. Those rules require internet service providers to treat all data the same and not give priority delivery to anybody, even if they are willing to pay.

Between now and Dec. 14, journalists will be writing words like "internet freedom" and reporting phrases like "net neutrality" as the Federal Communications Commission decides whether some companies should be allowed to deliver you data and services faster than others.

Tuesday, the chairman of the commission sent his fellow commissioners his reasoning for scrapping a 2-year-old rule known as net neutrality. In less than a month, the FCC will vote on this issue, and, by accounts, the future of the internet is at stake. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the FCC plan “an all-out assault on the entrepreneurship, innovation and competition at the heart of the internet.”

What is net neutrality

Think of data as vehicles and the lines that carry your data as highways. A couple of years ago, during the Obama administration, the FCC ruled that all data would be delivered at the same speed. So no driver could pay to get access to get a fast lane. Nobody could cut in front of the other just because they were willing to pay for less congestion.

Some companies use a lot of data so they want the data to move as fast as possible. Netflix, for example, cut deals that allowed it to deliver movies and TV shows 30 percent faster by giving Netflix data priority over other data. Faster data means smoother playing videos. AT&T struck a deal with Direct TV to deliver video data on mobile networks but not have the data show up on a customer's data limit.

Where's the problem?

Internet providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Time-Warner say they want and need the money that they can make from charging for priority delivery in order to keep building infrastructure. That's what FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was pointing to when he said, "Among the top 12 Internet service providers in terms of size, investment is down by 5.6 percent, or several billion dollars, over the last two years."

But without net neutrality regulations in place, internet providers can slow down data from sources who do not pay a premium. As a hypothetical example, imagine that Comcast wanted to give priority to NBC videos while slowing delivery to videos that come from Disney/ABC. Under net neutrality rules, that would not be allowed. 

As comedian John Oliver put it, "If we let cable companies offer two speeds of service, they won’t be Usain Bolt and Usain Bolt on a motorbike. They will be Usain Bolt, and Usain bolted to an anchor."

Pai says the times of greatest growth in the internet age (from the 1990s to 2015) were years when there was no net neutrality, what he calls "light-touch" regulation, only stepping in when there was an example of anti-competitive conduct. That light-touch approach, he says, gave rise to innovations like Google, Facebook and Netflix. But Google, itself, says it favors net neutrality. Google's website says:

"That’s how it works today and how it has always worked. It’s a level playing field, where new entrants and established players can reach users on an equal footing. If Internet access providers can block some services and cut special deals that prioritize some companies’ content over others, that would threaten the innovation that makes the Internet awesome."

This summer, Google, Twitter, Amazon and 80,000 websites protested the rollback of net neutrality rules.

What is 'internet freedom?'

Pai said "internet freedom" means freedom from regulation. Tuesday morning he wrote to his fellow commissioners:

“For almost twenty years, the Internet thrived under the light-touch regulatory approach established by President Clinton and a Republican Congress. This bipartisan framework led the private sector to invest $1.5 trillion building communications networks throughout the United States. And it gave us an Internet economy that became the envy of the world.

“But in 2015, the prior FCC bowed to pressure from President Obama. On a party-line vote, it imposed heavy-handed, utility-style regulations upon the Internet. That decision was a mistake. It’s depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation. 

“Today, I have shared with my colleagues a draft order that would abandon this failed approach and return to the longstanding consensus that served consumers well for decades. Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the Internet. Instead, the FCC would simply require Internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them and entrepreneurs and other small businesses can have the technical information they need to innovate."

But net neutrality backers say real freedom comes when all data passes freely without providers giving priority to those who are willing to pay more. They say net neutrality is the "First Amendment" of the internet, giving everyone the freedom to reach the users at the same speed.

The political battle

Protest groups like Demand Progress are planning pickets in front of Verizon stores just as holiday shoppers are passing by this weekend. The Hill reported, "Protesters in cities including Phoenix, Denver, San Francisco, New York City, Indianapolis and Boston will march from local Verizon stores to lawmakers’ district offices on Dec. 7." 

A website called Verizonprotests.com is building a map showing all of the planned protests around the country. 

Protestors are targeting Verizon over the other telecommunications companies because  Pai used to be an associate general counsel for Verizon.

A group called Fight for the Future promises a billboard campaign.

Just like last week's 3-2 vote to roll back regulations on broadcast ownership, this issue will be settled along party lines. 

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, said:

“In just two days, many of us will join friends and family in celebrating the spirit of Thanksgiving. But as we learned today the FCC majority is about to deliver a cornucopia full of rotten fruit, stale grains, and wilted flowers topped off with a plate full of burnt turkey. Their Destroying Internet Freedom Order would dismantle net neutrality as we know it by giving the green light to our nation’s largest broadband providers to engage in anti-consumer practices, including blocking, slowing down traffic, and paid prioritization of online applications and services."

Commissioner Clyburn is posting notes from backers on Twitter like these:

 

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.

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