Net neutrality

The Federal Communications Commission lost its battle with the big cable operators today, when a court ruled that the government agency doesn’t have the regulatory authority to require cable companies to treat all Internet traffic equally.

This is one of those issues where the court’s decision can easily get lost over the question of whether cable companies should treat all Internet traffic equally. Most reasonable people, it would seem, believe it should.

Common Cause’s treatise on the subject explains why:

For example, if you are shopping for a new appliance online you should be able to shop on any and all websites, not just the ones with whom your provider has a preferred business relationship. Or if you want to use your high-speed Internet connection to make phone calls, your provider should not be able to impede your ability to do so.

But the court didn’t rule on that aspect of the argument. It ruled on whether it’s a role the Federal Communications Commission has.

Jen Howard, from the FCC, hit it on the head:

“Today’s court decision invalidated the prior Commission’s approach to preserving an open Internet,” said Howard. “But the Court in no way disagreed with the importance of preserving a free and open Internet; nor did it close the door to other methods for achieving this important end.”

Look at it this way. Actors can swear on a cable TV show because it isn’t delivered “over the air.” The FCC has no ownership to apply its obscenity standards. The same program over the air would be bleeped out.

The cable under your street? You don’t own it. Comcast does.

Megan Tady of the group FreePress, however, says there’s an easy fix to that:

Here’s the deal: under the Bush FCC, the agency decided to classify and treat broadband Internet service providers the same as any Internet applications company like Facebook or Lexis-Nexis, placing broadband providers outside of the legal framework that traditionally applied to the companies that offer two-way communications services.

That’s the loophole that let Comcast wiggle out from under the agency’s thumb.

Change it back

There’s an easy fix here: The FCC can change broadband back to a “communications service,” which is where it should have been in the first place. By reclassifying broadband, all of these questions about authority will fall away and the FCC can pick up where it left off – protecting the Internet for the public and bridging the digital divide.