Explaining The Compromise On Net Neutrality

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

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:


Tim Wu


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Comments [15]

j.w. from Connecticut

If someone uses Extranormal to get their point across, that's very amateur. If someone results to insulting a politician's personal character to attack a policy, that's insulting. The actual argument they make, full of holes (they claim they'll have to offer the same, slow speed to everyone bc of this, even though right now, you can pay more for a faster connection, and that won't change). So color me unimpressed w the anti-Net Nuetrality video.

There's an article over at boingboing that paints these rules in a negative light:

I've also heard a lot about on this about how the FCC doesn't actually have the authority to impose net nuetrality, so I'd like to know, will these rules be upheld in court, and seriously enforced? If so, I actually think this is a good start.


Dec. 22 2010 12:36 PM

@Edward from NJ

I put operating system in quotes to highlight what seems like a fairly important distinction to draw. It's not clear to me that the program that allows the user to interact with the phone's hardware should be grounds for regulating internet access to the phone. I wouldn't call Android anything near ubiquitous, but I would be similarly suspicious if the FCC said that they wanted to regulate wired internet because of the ubiquity of Windows 7 or Snow Leopard.

Dec. 22 2010 11:06 AM
Darin from Brooklyn, NY

Brian I love your show and it's my first time writting in. It's good that there are some regulations around net nutrality for wired internet service, however the fact that the wireless service or transmission will be softly regulated does leave me with some concern. While your explanation that wireless internet service is a version of wired internet throught the use of a router was clear it's not fully accurate. There is a rapidly growing segment of wireless internet service for home and business that does not require a wired system, it's simply plug and play. One of the leaders in this space is Clearwire who is successfully marketing plug and play wireless modems and routers for home/busines running on a wireless 3G/4G network. The service is good and inproving and would most likely grow in popularity which leaves me concerned for the soft or lack net neutrality regulations for wireless internet service.

Dec. 22 2010 11:00 AM
Edward from NJ

@David, I'm not sure why you put quotes around operating system -- since that's exactly what Android is -- but Android is relevant because it's becoming ubiquitous and there are lots of new, relatively inexpensive devices sucking down wireless bandwidth.

Dec. 22 2010 10:55 AM

ATT is known for horrible wireless service.

Dec. 22 2010 10:44 AM

please ask for current definition of "The Internet".

we used to think of the internet as a backbone with infrastructure provided by imajor telcos and smaller internet service providers in between non-institutional users to the backbone.

as major telcos also serve as ISPs and have peering arrangements that allow them to communicate directly that only conceptual framework seems a bit dated.

what's the contemporary version?

(i have my own take on this but interested in Wu's.)

Dec. 22 2010 10:40 AM

Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner are making money hand over fist. The real cost of the most _expensive_ call that we can make anywhere in the world -- say a call from NYC to Beijing (I have no idea) -- is probably less than 10 cents per minute. Verizon, AT&T and so on, still charge 2 or 3 dollars per minute for that.

The real cost of a call from New York to London or San Francisco or Hoboken is certainly much less than 1 penny per minute -- vanishingly small. But we pay 100 or 1000 times the real cost per minute. The data carriers are just trying to control speech. It has _nothing_ to do with real costs to the companies.

Dec. 22 2010 10:40 AM
Mike from nyc

Over the last two days I have been hearing a lot of comment regarding potential loopholes in the rule. One was the network management that was going to be allowed.

What are the loopholes?

Dec. 22 2010 10:38 AM
matt from manhattan

The problem is the cable companies developed their model BEFORE we could stream entire movies over the internet. All you can eat buffet internet is so 90's.

Dec. 22 2010 10:38 AM

Would the FCC only have control over the speed of the internet service or would there be regulations on content?

Dec. 22 2010 10:34 AM

The FCC cited the emergence of Google's Andriod 'operating system' as a factor in their decision making with respect to wireless internet, which makes me think they don't really know what they're talking about.

Dec. 22 2010 10:33 AM
Phil from Brooklyn


If your neighbor is really hosting a site in his home he must have a static IP address, which would mean that he has a business class service, and I can't imagine how that would affect your speed unless you are piggybacking off his connection. Maybe your cable service is bad, or they are throttling your connection because they don't like you watching Netflix.

Dec. 22 2010 10:33 AM
Ben from Park Slope

Yesterday's decision was absolutely FAKE net neutrality for wireless platforms. There should be ABSOLUTE net neutrality on all platforms.

If anyone wants to create a private network with faster speeds at premium pricing, that's absolutely fine. But if they want to connect it to the Internet, then the American public (who paid for the Internet) should levy a $10B annual fee for the privilege. At least.

The essence of the Internet is that anyone can build a site or service and it can be seen by everyone. If they want to charge for more bandwidth, fine. But if they want to connect it to the Internet, "the people's" platform, then they cannot discriminate.

Dec. 22 2010 10:32 AM
Juli from Skillman, NJ

I'm certain that it was Howie Mandel that wore the diapers, not Al Franken. Al Franken guested on SNL from time to time.

Dec. 22 2010 10:28 AM
Grahamm from nj

Can you talk specificially about congestion management? My cable service at home is slow because my neighbor hosts a popular bit torrent site.

I want this guy "managed" or forced to pay more so my service is the best it can be without me paying more.


Dec. 22 2010 10:28 AM

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