There is a decidedly Californian tone to the "net neutrality" debate over how online content should be delivered by phone and cable companies:
Should it be more like the water that flows through your plumbing? Or more like a cab on an Internet freeway with a for-profit FasTrak lane?
For years, the Federal Communications Commission has sought a way to ensure that Internet providers such as Comcast and Verizon can't play favorites among the websites they carry. The fear is that, without oversight, the companies that control Internet access will have too much power over what gets seen and how fast it is delivered, which in turn could hurt competition and free speech.
But devising rules that will stand up in court has been an ongoing challenge, partly because, in 2002 the FCC classified cable modems as "information services" rather than telecommunications. This limited the commission's regulatory powers — and conveniently set the cable and phone companies up to make bank.
Last week, the FCC opened the formal comment period on two sets of draft options. One would reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service, making it more like a public utility — say, the electric company, or the infrastructure that delivers your water. Reclassification would allow for tougher regulation, and force Internet service providers to give equal treatment to all the traffic on their networks.
Phone and cable companies, not surprisingly, already have come out against that, saying it would impose onerous costs and stifle innovation. Their preference is for a second FCC option that would allow for a two-tiered system — a FasTrak — on which they could charge content companies such as Netflix and Amazon for super-fast, VIP access to their subscribers.
The FCC's proposed rules would tightly restrict that fast lane. Internet providers couldn't cut deals that were "commercially unreasonable," and they would have to keep giving subscribers a basic and undiminished level of service. But consumer advocates are skeptical.
So are we.
It's early in the 120-day comment period, and rules aren't expected until the year's end. But anyone who has ever turned on a tap knows how freely and easily a product can flow when no one can mess with the plumbing.
And anyone who has ever taken the FasTrak over the Golden Gate Bridge knows that the toll ultimately comes out of only one pocket — the consumer's — and the price of priority access goes only one way.
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