FCC Ruling Could Inject Politics into News Delivery

A major court just killed the idea of net neutrality. Where do we go from here?

Yesterday a three-judge panel unanimously tossed out the FCC’s August 2008 cease and desist order against Comcast, which had taken measures to slow BitTorrent transfers but which had voluntarily discontinued the practice earlier in the year.

Many of the organizations and companies who rely on open Internet access were appalled by the ruling and described how bad it will be for the competitive broadband market in the future. In other words, they believe this ruling will be bad for consumers.

As a result, ISPS can now feel free to throttle bandwidth on specific applications and decide perhaps that VoIP traffic from a competitor is of a low priority.

Then again, it is very tough to fault Comcast for throttling BitTorrent as the software is an absolute bandwidth hog, with its ability to send massive amounts of traffic and receive it at the same time as files are shared with other users in a p2p fashion.

But what doesn’t get reported on at all is that many who follow Internet regulation closely will tell you what Comcast did in throttling a bandwidth hogging application was likely good for VoIP providers as it ensured there was more bandwidth available for this and other latency-sensitive applications.

In other words Comcast did not follow the rules of net neutrality but it was adhering to the principles of net neutrality by ensuring a bandwidth hogging latency insensitive application was slowed and as a result leaving more of the pipe available for voice and video applications which after all are real-time in nature.

Where this gets interesting is when potential bias is introduced into the equation. For example, many television networks and newspapers are slanted to the right or left of the political spectrum.

Now that Comcast will become a majority owner of NBC, will a combined company alter packets in a manner where news sites and videos with an alternate point of view are slowed or blocked in some way? Will some sites get better quality of service than others because they agree with the political ideals of a corporation?

Our democracy relies on free and open information flow and one wonders if we are entering dangerous ground as a result of this ruling. The Obama administration has stated publicly that they favor net neutrality and the concern is that Congress will now act to give the FCC more power over Internet regulation.

But is this a good thing? This administration has publicly gone after at least one news organization, called it out and tried to restrict access this network had to information. In other words the Obama administration has already shown bias to one network over another because of its slant on news coverage.

And even if this wasn’t the case, does anyone trust the government to put rules in place that work? Well anyone who sees how much lobbying money is used to buy off our politicians on a regular basis knows that whatever the government will do will favor the groups with money at the expense of the organizations which are poor.

As an example, the Obama administration and Congress decided to levy a tax on plastic surgery to pay for healthcare but the lobby “persuaded” the government to look elsewhere and as a result tanning bed owners who had little political representation now have a crippling 10% tax added to their service. This is the deliberate targeting of an industry – and for no apparent reason.

When I think these ideas through I realize as a nation we are in the middle of a very dangerous situation where we must be very concerned about what our elected officials do to protect the open Internet. In other words, when you say the Internet needs to be open, you need to have someone police the idea. And we don’t have an impartial police force as they can be bought off quite easily.

With that said, we should be concerned about the future – not only worrying about what ISPs may do to alter network traffic but more importantly, how deep will the government decide to further intrude into the lives of its citizens.

Believe it or not, the above is the good news – the bad could be an impending nuclear war in the courts according to Gary Kim.

Update: FCC reaction

  • Joe Garland
    April 7, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    The court did not rule on net neutrality per se. It ruled that the FCC exceeded its authority with its Comcast ruling. As the court noted, if it affirmed the FCC’s order, the FCC would have nearly unbridled authority to regulate the internet.
    Say what you will about net neutrality, it, and the internet version of USF, are better left in the hands of Congress, however imperfect that mechanism is. Do we want the FCC to set rules requiring providers to charge no more than X for using their pipes, which the FCC admitted to the D.C. Circuit it could under its, the FCC’s, view of its authority?

  • richardsprague
    April 7, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    Joe’s correct. This is only about FCC authority under current law, but I assume the Obama administration will try to go to Congress to change that.
    Incidentally, much of the news coverage about net neutrality tries to spin this as “Big Corporations” versus the little guy, but the reality is that it’s one set of Big Corporations (Comcast, etc.) versus another set of Big Corporations (Google, etc.).

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