The internet as we know it is dead.
On Tuesday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the second most important court in the country after the Supreme Court, struck down the FCC’s Open Internet Order, the legal framework that protects net neutrality.
This is nothing short of a disaster.
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The idea behind net neutrality is pretty simple: big corporate internet service providers, like Verizon, should have to treat all websites and all web users equally and should not be allowed to treat the internet like their own personal toll road.
They should not be allowed, for example, to run your music website at crappy speeds just because that music site could compete with a Verizon-owned music website.
Net neutrality is important because it keeps the internet open for all. If corporate internet providers like Verizon or Comcast are allowed to discriminate between websites, they can make the owners of competitor websites pay them top dollar to run their websites at high speed.
Again, without net neutrality, Verizon could treat the internet like its own privately-owned highway. People who wanted to drive on it would have to pay up beforehand. If those people didn’t pay up, Verizon could slow down the speed of their websites.
This would obviously be great for Verizon, but it could make it near impossible for rival websites to compete with Verizon-owned websites and put a damper on all innovation.
Which is exactly why big corporate internet providers have been trying to gut net neutrality for years, and with Tuesday’s D.C. Circuit Court Ruling, they finally got their wish.
Net neutrality in the U.S. is dead for the moment and big internet service providers are now free to discriminate against web users and websites as much as they want.
The roots of Tuesday’s decision go back almost twenty years ago to when Congress redefined the types of technology services that the FCC could regulate in in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
In that act, Congress said that internet companies like Verizon were providing an “information service” as opposed to a “common carrier” service.
If something is an “information service,” the company that provides that service is free to charge you more money for different levels of access.
The best of example of this is cable television, which is considered an “information service” and therefore not a “common carrier.”
For example, your cable company can charge you $25 dollars for the basic package, $25 more dollars so you can get premium sports channels, and $5 more on to that for the big ticket movie channels. It’s up to you what channels you want to buy, but the basic point is that your cable company, as an “information service,” can treat its users differently depending on how they use their TV.
“Common carrier services” are not allowed to do this. As a “common carrier service,” your phone company can’t just charge you more for doing something like using your personal phone line to talk business with a friend.
That’s because as a “common carrier service,” your phone company is providing a public good, a utility.
And utilities, like telephone service and water, are considered part of the commons because they are natural monopolies
Just like you can only have one water line or one power line running into your house, you can only have one telephone line running into your house.
This is true for most American users of the internet today. Just like most Americans only have one water line or one telephone line running into their house, most Americans only have one internet line running into their house, and that’s their cable line.
As a society, we generally define natural monopolies as “common carriers” – as part of the commons – because it’s important for everyone to have open access to them without having to worry about being totally ripped off by their utility company.
That’s why the FCC should designate internet service providers like Verizon as “common carrier services” rather than “information services,” something they could do tomorrow if they chose to.
The FCC should do this because by providing internet service, Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and other big internet service providers are giving their customers access to one of the most important parts of the modern information commons.
If we want to make sure everyone can use that part of the commons, we need to regulate the internet service providers as “common carriers.”
When the internet was just starting out and people accessed it by dialing in through their telephone lines, there were tens of thousands of companies offering dial-up access.
Back then, you could make an argument that those internet service providers were “information services” rather than “common carriers” because there was so much competition in the marketplace.
But now that we’re nearing a time when almost 75 percent of American households will only have one choice for internet service, access to the internet has become both a natural monopoly, and, in a very real way, close to an oligopoly.
With the rise of cable bundling, the internet marketplace is now dominated by giants like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T, and the result is that most people only have a very limited number of ways to get access to the internet.
As such, access to the internet is a natural monopoly and therefore should be regulated by the FCC as a common carrier service.
Unfortunately, the FCC and the U.S. Supreme Court don’t see it that way. In 2002 under George W. Bush, the FCC classified broadband internet access provided by companies like Verizon as an “information service.” In 2005, the Supreme Court upheld its power to make that classification.
And in 2010, when the FCC issued the Open Internet Order to protect net neutrality, it neglected to define internet service providers like Verizon as “common carriers.”
That was a huge mistake.
When the DC Circuit Court struck down net neutrality on Tuesday, it said that because the FCC defines companies like Verizon as information service providers, net neutrality – something mandated for common carriers – wasn’t necessary.
The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Modern life and the modern economy depend on the internet. Small businesses need to it to grow. Everyday people need it to shop for goods or just learn about the world around them.
All those things will be a lot harder to do if companies like Verizon can discriminate against start-up websites and everyday internet users to pad their profits.
We need to petition the FCC to change its rules so that internet service providers like
Verizon are labeled as common carriers, not information service providers.
That way, net neutrality will be preserved and the internet will remain open to everyone, not just giant corporations.
Go to freepress.net to sign the petition and tell the FCC how you feel!