Trying to place their thumbs on the net neutrality scale in advance of today's FCC vote on the issue, House Republicans have warned the commission against taking the one step that would truly guarantee net neutrality: reclassifying the Internet as a "telecommunications" service.
Why? Because that would hurt the big cable and phone companies that currently stand in the way of net neutrality. More specifically, according to the letter issued Tuesday by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and his fellow committee members Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Bob Latta (R-Ohio), "stock values would drop and investment capital will become much harder to find.... This is not an outcome anyone wants."
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As for those who value the principle that these Internet service providers shouldn't be allowed to block, obstruct, or favor some online content providers over others, whether at whim or for profit, the stock values of the cable companies aren't very important.
[Update: The FCC voted today 3-2, with Chairman Tom Wheeler and his two Democratic colleagues in the majority, to open Wheeler's controversial net neutrality proposal for public comment.]
It's well understood by those who have followed the tortured history of the Federal Communications Commission's efforts to preserve net neutrality, reclassification is the key to success. It would undo the worst decision the FCC ever made in the field, which was redefining the Internet as an "information" service rather than "telecommunications."
That decision was made in 2002 under then-Chairman Michael Powell. Was that a boon for cable operators? You be the judge: Powell now collects big bucks as the cable industry's chief lobbyist in Washington. But the change permanently hobbled the FCC's ability to regulate Internet service. Since then the agency has lost two major court cases over its net neutrality policies, brought by Comcast and Verizon; neither case would even have been brought had it stuck to the original classification.
The authors of the Republican letter make clear that they don't know much about the condition of broadband Internet service in the U.S., and don't much care. For example, they cite "the incredible record of broadband success in America."
Is that so? Broadband in America is slower than in much of the rest of the industrialized world and costs more. (For a shocking comparison by the New America Foundation, read here.) Low-income communities in particular are left further and further behind. And the big Internet providers in the cable and telecom world exercise an ever tightening grip on service, leaving it crummy in order to squeeze more money from content providers and you, the customer.
But the one regulatory move that would restore the FCC's unquestioned authority to ride herd on these profiteers? The House GOP calls that "turning back the clock." Doing so, say these water-carriers for the cable and telephone companies, "would be fatal to the Internet as we know it."
Advocates of the open Internet and net neutrality have long been aware that reclassification would be politically difficult, precisely because of the sentiments the GOP letter expresses so baldly. But that's not a reason to shy from it. Now that the Internet providers and their handmaidens in Congress have drawn the line, the FCC should step over it and let the battle begin. The time to start is today.