Net neutrality: We need a hero, from the unlikeliest of places

That hero is FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, but can he overcome his past allegiance to the cable companies?

The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., threw out the FCC's Net neutrality rules yesterday, ruling that the FCC lacked the authority to enforce those rules. Also known as the open Internet rules, Net neutrality forbids landline carriers from favoring content or services from any provider, as well as from penalizing content from any provider. Carriers, led by Verizon, want the ability to steer customers to or away from providers based on their business relationships and own services, such as to throttle or block Netflix in favor of their own TV services -- what my colleague Bill Snyder calls "Web pay-per-view."

The crux of the matter here is that the FCC never classified Internet service providers as common carriers, which legally must stay neutral about the content they carry. Telephone service providers are common carriers, for example, so they must connect calls from anyone to anyone, and can't charge different rates to or from calls to their competitors. They also can't force you to rent their phones, as they once did and as TV-service providers do today.

[ InfoWorld's Bill Snyder reveals Verizon's diabolical plan to turn the Web into pay-per-view. | For quick, smart takes on the news you'll be talking about, check out InfoWorld TechBrief -- subscribe today. ]

In short, if the phone companies weren't common carriers and these regulations weren't in place, we'd be back to the 1970s when Ma Bell rented you a phone for $20 per month, and that was all you could ever use. Apply that business approach to the Internet, and you suddenly see why this is so important. Lacking this regulation, Verizon could strike a deal with, say, Apple and refuse to allow Android tablets to connect to the Internet via its in-home Wi-Fi units unless you paid an additional fee -- or unless Google paid Verizon an additional fee. That's just the tip of the iceberg.

The FCC essentially deregulated the carriers in 2005 and has resisted any laws that would mandate Net neutrality. The FCC has been divided internally on the issue, with the result being the issuance of open Internet rules without the foundation of common carrier designation. That's what the court essentially said must be in place.

The FCC could take this opportunity to undo that great disservice by declaring ISPs common carriers. After all, in reality, that's what the ISPs are, and they should be treated as such.

Remember, U.S. taxpayers directly and indirectly funded a significant amount of the cost of constructing these very networks that the carriers want to turn into pay-per-view networks. As to carrier promises not to hurt customers with any changes they make with Net neutrality gone, don't believe them. They have a long history of making promises they don't keep.

This ruling leads to a horrific state of affairs, one that is clearly not in the best interests of literally everyone in the country except the ISP shareholders. But the FCC can fix this. It can declare ISPs common carriers and regulate the ISPs as they should be regulated. That's all it would take. You see, the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC has the power to decide what is and what is not a telecom service, so it has the clear authority to do so.

The FCC is the hero we need -- specifically, Tom Wheeler, the current FCC chief. Therein lies the rub: Wheeler is an ex-cable-company lobbyist. Although he has expressed concern over yesterday's ruling and says he may appeal or look at other rules to prevent ISPs' bad behavior, he also has made plenty of statements emphasizing that he is more interested in promoting competition rather than regulation. But competition isn't going to do anything about this doomsday scenario -- carriers hardly compete today, having carved up the country so that in most locations you have only one or two equally bad options. They have proven time and time again that they cannot be trusted to do the right thing if left alone.

Despite Wheeler's past, he needs to be that hero, to make the most obvious of statements and call ISPs telecom providers. They need to be regulated like the other foundations of our civilization, such as power, water, and telephone. The future of the Internet in America depends on it.

This story, "Net neutrality: We need a hero, from the unlikeliest of places," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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