Glimmer of hope or dying embers? Net neutrality flares up again

Politicos get behind Net neutrality with the Open Internet Preservation Act of 2014, but the real power lies with us

Net neutrality is back in the headlines, instigating ferocious fears and angry arguments everywhere, from dive bars in DC to sushi-vegan fusion bistros in San Francisco. Theories abound as to what will happen and even what transpired that fateful day when the DC appeals court maybe smoked one too many and struck down the FCC's standing open Internet rules, which had governed the behavior of slavering big-business ISP wolves for the last several years, keeping them from devouring both consumers and each other.

This news mostly made headlines last month, but it's back on many a digitized page 1 because Democrats in both houses of Congress just introduced a bill they say will save Net neutrality for the foreseeable future. Sponsored by California representatives Henry Waxman and Anna Eshoo, the Open Internet Preservation Act of 2014 stands almost no chance of success -- mainly because the Republicans, who control the House, have already vowed to hunt it down and kill it like poachers clubbing baby seals.

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Which brings up all kinds of questions: Are Republican evil, corporate-owned hunchbacks who believe in "legitimate rape," while Democrats are haloed do-gooders stymied at every turn by nefarious monsters they can't overcome? Or has this issue been on the table for years and the Democrats are only now pushing it for political advantage? Does it even matter since both parties' campaign coffers are stuffed with money from the same ISP/telecomm companies anyway?

Also, is Net neutrality a relic of the past, and should we expect to pay double for what barely passes as third-world broadband while being forced at wallet point to watch only FiOS or Comcast TV since Netflix is doomed to fade into low-QoS obscurity? It all depends -- stop me if you think you've heard this one before -- on whom you ask.

Clashing narratives

Once the FCC's open rules crashed in court, dire predictions of our digital future started flying around like new working groups at an OpenStack convention. Without an FCC stick to keep them in line, ISPs claim they are essentially free to prioritize the traffic going across their Internet pipes as they see fit.

The idea of a Netflix -- competing directly with the streaming video services offered by Verizon FiOS, for example -- seems doomed. Regulate Netflix's streams to a crawl, and even unwilling customers will switch to FiOS video since they'd rather watch that than a spinning hourglass. In this scenario, control needs to be restored to the FCC immediately or we'll all lose access to independent entertainment and Internet innovation (in other words, free Web porn and hookup apps).

But the FCC spun the ruling an entirely different way. In a press announcement shortly after the ruling, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler tweeted (apparently how top government officials communicate with the hoi polloi now) that the DC Circuit had "affirmed" the FCC's authority to maintain a free Internet that will remain open to innovation. Some say Mr. Wheeler must have been high on buckets of espresso and Peruvian flake to misinterpret reality this way. But others claim he's right on the money since the court gavel-blasted only two provisions of the FCC's open Internet rules while still accepting its overall interpretation.

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