Defend Net Neutrality…Again

John Oliver did it again. Two nights ago, on Last Week Tonight, he covered net neutrality, explaining it in an accessible way, and advocating everyone to visit the FCC’s website to comment on the proposed rules.

As he explained on the show and what should not come as a surprise given the corporate lapdog that now runs the FCC, commenting on the proposed rules to revoke net neutrality regulation is a lot harder than before. But the Last Week Tonight producers made it easy to comment. They mapped the domain name http://gofccyourself.com to the comment form. (Deep linking FTW!)

While Oliver explains a lot of reasons why net neutrality is important, it might be better to see this from the perspective of Title I vs. Title II. Oliver offered to contrast it, but the explanation comparing the difference between the two didn’t materialize. Nevertheless, it might be helpful to think about Title I vs. Title II in these terms:

  • Title I is an information service. A cable company operates under Title I because the cable company curates the channel lineup and offers a package of television channels. Users have little choice in what channels they get, aside from choosing a tier of channels.
  • Title II is a common carrier utility. A landline telephone company operates under Title II because it doesn’t not select or curate your phone calls. It simply connects one telephone to another.

Most of us think of our Internet service provider as a common carrier. We subscribe to one ISP versus another based on a few factors: upload and download speeds, reliability, and price. We don’t do so because of “exclusive content” or any synergistic nonsense like that. With any ISP, we expect to reach any website, connect any device, and run almost any application.

On the other hand, we think of major platforms on the Internet, such as Facebook or Google, as an information service. However, no one relies on only one of these platforms. Remember when Facebook partnered with HTC to make a “Facebook Phone?” It was a disaster because no one wants to live in this walled garden, even if we might spend a lot of time there.

We have only had net neutrality for two years, but we must keep it because we don’t want our Internet service providers to become an information service.

When an ISP acts like an information service, we get something like we had with America Online (AOL). Today, most people shudder when I mention AOL because think of slow dialup connections and the shrieking modem-handshake sound. But honestly, what made AOL so bad was that it was your internet service provider and your content provider, and while it was easy to use, it was really bad. It was not only a walled garden, like Facebook today, but unlike Facebook, you paid by-the-hour while you were on AOL. I don’t think any consumer wants to go back to these days.

AOL CD 700 Free Hours

You don’t want to know how much you had to pay after AOL’s free 700 hours.

The same is true for wireless. The iPhone was revolutionary, not only as a mobile computing device, but because Apple insisted that it have complete control over the hardware: the wireless carrier could not install any software nor brand the phone. The iPhone was a success in part because Apple relegated AT&T to the role of a wireless common carrier, keeping them from acting like an information service.

I certainly remember this was not the case with some of my old phones, such as a Sprint-branded phone that I got in 2001, that came with the “wireless web.” It was basically an AOL-like service provided by Sprint that had local weather, news, and sports scores. It sucked. The only redeeming feature of this service was that it allowed you to enter a URL, and there were a handful of sites that offered mobile WAP sites, largely because of the success of Palm handhelds.

Sprint PCS Wireless Web, circa 2001

This was the Web on a Sprint PCS Wireless Phone, circa 2001.

The one thing that Pai gets right about “net neutrality” is that is a confusing term. But in this case, let there be no confusion. Internet service providers are by their very nature common carriers. That’s how they market themselves, that’s why consumers subscribe to one ISP versus another, and that’s how the Internet as we know it has flourished in the last decade and a half. Moving ISPs to Title I—as information services—will invite those ISPs to become gatekeepers and walled gardens that stymie innovation. Let’s not go back to the days when “surfing the web” meant scrolling through a mobile “wireless web” browser’s menu or, heaven forbid, entering AOL keywords.

Tell Chairman Pai: Go FCC Yourself-dot-Com!

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