Real net neutrality

In an op-ed in Wired magazine explaining his plan to regulate broadband Internet service providers like public utilities, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler uses an anecdote from his own past as a tech entrepreneur to illustrate the benefits of open network access, known familiarly as "net neutrality." In the 1980s, he says, he was president of a company that provided network access to home computers at what was then a blazing rate of speed — 1.5 megabits per second. Meanwhile, another company was offering the same basic service but at a tiny fraction of the speed. You have probably not heard of Mr. Wheeler's company, NABU, but you almost certainly know of his competitor: America Online.

Why did AOL succeed and NABU fail? NABU relied on cable television lines to deliver data, and that represented a closed system to which Mr. Wheeler's company had to negotiate access. AOL, on the other hand, used telephone lines, which the FCC had 20 years earlier deemed to be an open network. Anybody with a modem could get on AOL, anywhere in the country, without paying extra for the privilege.


What Mr. Wheeler is proposing is a regulatory framework to ensure that America's modern broadband network operates like the phone lines did back in the modem days. All customers of an Internet service provider would have access to all legal content, and the ISP would not be able to block, slow down or charge more for some websites or services. It also means the massive content providers on the Internet — Google, Facebook, Netflix and the like — can't pay more for preferential access to consumers or effectively muscle nascent competitors out of the market. Mr. Wheeler is seeking to apply those rules to mobile broadband as well, an important step given the changing nature of consumers' Internet use.

Big Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon are predictably aghast, and so are their Republican allies in Congress. Assuming Mr. Wheeler gets the support of a majority of the FCC in a vote expected later this month, his plan is likely to face legal challenges and an effort to legislate away the commission's authority to take this action. ISPs claim that enforced net neutrality would overburden them with regulations and would stifle investment in a faster, better Internet.


But what Mr. Wheeler is proposing for the wired broadband industry is really just a legal framework for enforcing the status quo. Though the mobile world has heretofore been different, wired broadband has operated under net neutrality principles for years. ISPs might like the opportunity to prioritize certain traffic on their networks — and most certainly to create a new revenue stream by charging content providers for preferential access. But it's hard to swallow the idea that net neutrality has somehow hindered the development of the Internet or stifled investment in it.

Though he doesn't elaborate on it, Mr. Wheeler's reference to AOL's success in the early days of the Internet shows the degree to which just the opposite has been the case. At one point, AOL was the dominant means by which consumers accessed the Internet, but the fact that it did so by exploiting free access to telephone networks did not remotely stop others from investing in new and better technologies. Today, only about 2.3 million people subscribe to AOL's dial-up service, and the fact that even that many do nonplusses most tech industry commentators. Broadband is superior technology, and net neutrality didn't stop its development. It won't stop the development of whatever comes next either.

There's another dimension here besides the question of optimal regulation of a sector of business, and that is the Internet's role in fostering the free and open exchange of ideas. Without it, ISPs could block access to any sort of content they chose, whether for commercial or political reasons. The Internet is now the principal means by which Americans engage in social and political mobilization. We shouldn't allow anything to threaten its openness.

Mr. Wheeler was a reluctant convert to this cause, having proposed various compromises over the last year. But the FCC was deluged with input from Americans — some 4 million comments in all — overwhelmingly demanding that the agency settle for nothing less than true net neutrality. We hope his fellow commissioners heed their call.