Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, may have the toughest job in Washington this month.
While the majority of us are struggling with what to watch on Sunday now that football is over, Wheeler is busy looking over his newly released Net Neutrality proposal. The FCC will have a few weeks to contemplate the rules before voting on them at its next meeting on Feb. 26.
At its core, Net Neutrality is the concept that all Internet traffic is treated equally. That means all the data, content, sites, platforms and services can be accessed on the same playing field. Yahoo! doesn't get preferential treatment over Google or my blog about cats with top hats on the ISP end.
ISPs have been bending these rules lately as the increase in data usage has exponentially grown. One instance that gripped headlines was the Comcast vs. Netflix case last year, which ended up with Netflix paying Comcast to keep their traffic flowing. That's paid prioritization, which directly goes against what Net Neutrality is about.
Under Wheeler's proposal, Internet services (including wireless providers such as Verizon and AT&T) would be reclassified under Title II of the Communications Act, much like your telephone service. That would give the FCC the legal power to enforce their Net Neutrality rules with the Internet as a common carrier.
It's been the subject of harsh debate for years now - a classic brawl between free enterprise and government regulation. The Republican-led Congress is already gearing up for battle, accusing the White House of improperly influencing the FCC and launching a probe led by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. I'm sure the $15,100 from Comcast, $21,000 from Google, and $10,420 from Oracle Corp. during Chaffetz's last election campaign has not influenced his role as the head of the House Oversight Committee.
The White House's stance on the FCC's role has been very clear and very public, albeit made out of political necessity. One of President Obama's flailing haymakers after the fallout of the midterms was calling out the FCC on national primetime television to create new Net Neutrality rules. Their rules offered last May were weak, giving companies the freedom to implement fast lanes and paid prioritization for content as they see fit. When Comcast - which still holds its crown as the "most hated company in America" going into 2015 - agrees with your rules, you probably have an issue.
In this latest proposal, in addition to the basics of Net Neutrality (no blocking of legal content, no throttling, no paid prioritization), the FCC proposed the following rules:
Transparency. ISPs will have to make widely available the specifics of how they manage and run their networks.
Reasonable network management. This allows ISPs to manage their networks and prioritize content that requires minimal disruption (such as streaming video) during high traffic times. This is different from paid prioritization, and the FCC will be the one to determine what is reasonable or not. ISPs do this already, but they are not subject to oversight or regulation.
Open Internet conduct standard. This is the FCC's attempt to future-proof these rules, creating a "general Open Internet conduct standard that ISPs cannot harm consumers or edge providers."
While the classification under Title II effectively turns the Internet into a utility, the FCC has already said they would dismiss some of the outdated facets of the act, such as having the FCC set prices or forcing providers to pay a subsidy on its service.
That's the argument that will be heard over and over again in the weeks and months ahead. Net Neutrality opponents want the public to believe that Internet prices will skyrocket under the FCC's watch, and that the rules will stifle growth because, as Sen. Ted Cruz puts it, nobody wants the Internet to "operate at the speed of government." The government's track record has been horrible as of late, but that doesn't negate the need for an open Internet.
To say that the Internet is at a tipping point is not far-fetched. The Internet may be one of mankind's greatest inventions. It gives us a worldwide tool to instantaneously communicate with one another, and it's changing the very way we communicate altogether. According to Eric Schmidt from Google, we create more information every two days than humans have created from the dawn of man up to 2003. That's huge.
This content creation and sharing of knowledge collectively grants our species limitless potential, and that's the very human element behind the ones and zeroes our computers send.
Net Neutrality protects that and keeps it open for all, and this latest push is the best attempt to establish rules and preserve it. It's uncertain if they are comprehensive enough, or if they will truly stifle the Internet infrastructure as opponents say they will. And when companies such as Intel, IBM, and Qualcomm swap sides (or Google, who seems to fight on both sides depending on popular opinion), it's enough to question the proposal and whom it truly serves.
However, if it is accepted and the rules are set, regardless of the outcome, we as consumers will be able to see it and participate in the discussion. The fate of the Internet won't hide in board meetings or in the financial books of conglomerates that have proven time and time again they are willing to bend the rules for the sake of profit.