Explaining The Compromise On Net Neutrality

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show,Tim Wu, a policy advocate and professor at Columbia Law School, discussed yesterday's FCC compromise vote on net neutrality. His recent book The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires examines how new media revolutions are always proceeded by centralized corporate control over the new mediums.

By a majority of 3-2, Federal Communications Commission just approved new rules governing Internet access. The rules add some teeth to the concept of "Net Neutrality," which calls for all Internet traffic to be treated equally. They also fulfill one of Obama's campaign promises.

Under the new regulations, companies will not be able to block websites that offer competing services: Verizon as an Internet Service Provider couldn't prevent competing phone companies from showing up in users' web searches, for example. Companies will also be prohibited from creating a "two-tier Internet," by dividing traffic into fast and slow lanes. That all sounds pretty good for the consumer—but many Internet freedom advocates are decrying the new rules for being too weak, particularly in one arena: mobile devices.

Wired vs. Wireless Internet

The main criticism of the rules is that they don't go far enough in regulating how much companies can control wireless Internet access. Now that everybody (and their mom) has a smart phone, we are all essentially carrying around tiny computers, and some people rely on their mobile devices for the majority of their Internet access. So why did the FCC make a distinction between Wired vs. Wireless? According to Wu, it comes down to the strength of the phone lobby:

I was in the FCC and I said why don't we extend this to wireless and they said that's great, but AT&T would never agree to it. And I said, 'well, AT&T doesn't have a vote on this commission! And they said, 'yeah, but they have 60 Congressmen, and they can make your life miserable.'

The worry is that you'll buy, say, a verizon phone, and all the stuff that's not from Google will be extremely poorly delivered. Or vice versa, if you have an iPhone. So are the new rules really just fake net-neutrality? Wu doesn't think so—he says they're pretty strong for wired internet.

Will the regulations stifle innovation or encourage it? 

Wu says that content producers and entrepreneurs should thank their lucky stars that these rules passed the FCC. For amateur content creators like cute-cat-video-makers or Wikipedia contributors, Wu says net-neutrality is essential for getting their content seen. It means that Wikipedia loads just as fast—if not faster—than CNN. Without net-neutrality, CNN could potentially pay for better access and for Wikipedia to be slower, and the open-source site would never be able to compete.

→All the companies that are trying to start a new product to reach the consumer basically need a way to do it without having to pay off comcast or AT&T or Verizon, so it's pretty important to entrepreneurship in this country.

Will people have to pay more for more usage?

Potentially. At the moment, as everyone knows, we pay a lot of money for Internet access at home, and we don't have any control over bandwidth even if its sloooooow. On the other hand, earlier this year, AT&T started giving iPhone owners options over the amount of data they pay for. Wu says the ISPs need a culture change:

→What the cable companies should do is get rid of some of those cable channels no one is watching, and turn that into internet service. The problem is that they're still TV companies. They haven't figured out that people like the Internet. Cable could be twice as good, or three times as fast as it is, it's just that they're maintaining all these cable channels because they get money from them.

It's all about free speech! 

In particular, political free speech, says Wu.

→A lot of the important candidacies we've seen, even the Tea Party, like or or not, or Obama's, have been Internet based campaigns, and that depends on easy access. Its fundamental to Democracy to have some channels of communication open.

What do you think? Watch these opposing net-neutrality videos and write your response below: