Network neutrality has been with us as an issue for something like ten years now - I first wrote about it for Scientific Americanin early 2006 - and despite the clamor of various people this week claiming that "we" - that is, the forces for an open internet that supports innovation and freedom of expression - have won the debate seems likely to be with us for a long time yet. This week, Tom Wheeler, the chair of the US Federal Communications Commission, that he intends to base new net neutrality rules on Title II of the 1934 Telecommunications Act (PDF). Wheeler discusses his proposed rules (PDF) in a blog post0 for Wired and various folks are getting all excited but the FCC itself doesn't vote on Wheeler's proposals until February 26, and even assuming the FCC votes in favor there will doubtless be much industry pushback and even after that icky! legal! details! and probably at least one court case. Still, TechPresident calls passage a "virtual certainty".
There's a particularly expert radio discussion between Tim Wu, the Columbia University professor who is generally credited with coining the phrase "network neutrality", speaking in favour and Dave Farber, a pioneering computer scientist and professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, voicing reservations. Also worth checking out is Public Knowledge'a Reddit question-and-answer session.
The issue of what right ISPs had to discriminate among the sources of content reaching consumers over internet links was originally kicked into the public consciousness in November 2005, when the then CEO of AT&T, Edward E. Whitacre (who six years earlier had told Business Week he had neither a computer nor email in his own office and was almost completely computer-illiterate) said publicly that companies like Google, Yahoo!, and Vonage should be paying his company for delivering audiences to them. Otherwise, he said, AT&T would have no incentive to invest in upgrading its network. Ignoring the ludicrousness of that argument (really no incentive? you need more competitors, if that's the case).
Since then, the issue has only continued to grow. In the last year, since the FCC proposed to issue rules allowing the creation of discriminatory "internet fast lanes", it has received an unprecedented 4 million public comments.
The issue in its current form was set off just over a year ago, when a federal court struck down substantial portions of the FCC's last attempt to impose regulatory control, 2010's Open Internet Order (PDF). Legal wrangles since have focused on whether ISPs should be classed as "common carriers", which the FCC has the authority to regulate, or "information services", which it does not. This week, Wheeler made plain his intention to classify them as common carriers - telecommunications services like the old phone companies were, not information services like CompuServe was. Most important for free and open internet advocates, common carriers may not discriminate among the content they carry: they're not allowed, for example, to accept payment to deliver telemarketers' calls and send all your personal calls to voicemail or , in the case of ISPs, to hobble the delivery of Skype calls while allocating extra bandwidth to their own.
Probably the best summary of what the proposals do and don't do is at Ars Technica. The best news seems to be that the Title I classification, and therefore the rules, will be extended to mobile broadband for the first time (although mobile network operators' voice services have always been included). As for the rest, as the Streaming Media blog says, what many US consumers want is greater choice, and they seem unlikely to get it, since the FCC's proposals explicitly promise not to require last-mile unbundling, regulate prices, or require ISPs to file tariffs. So, regulated, but not as heavily as an electric or gas utility.
You can measure indirectly the probable worth of the proposals, even without reading them, by seeing how the players line up: AT&T hates them as much as it ever did, despite a change in CEO; in the New York Times the telecommunications expert Susan Crawford welcomes the oversight.
So until or unless the proposals fail in a vote or in court, we can be cautiously optimistic. For the US, however, which is falling behind in broadband provision in some significant ways, there is still a lot to fix: most regions have at most two, sometimes one, provider; bandwidth caps and sponsored data also limit access.
And another thought: in 2005, when this squabble over who has pole position to demand payment began, Netflix wasn't streaming yet and pre-Google YouTube was only six months old, but the fear of bandwidth-swamping video was already with us. Rightsholders, whose fear of lost revenues and control meant that the only services that could get legal licenses to carry copyrighted content were centralized ones using acceptably protected technology. As the EFF's Danny O'Brien pointed out to me in conversation in December, we may think of what we call "streaming" as a computerized analogue of broadcasting, but in fact what's happening technically is download-and-delete. Like "free" instead of "pay-with-data" used to describe services like Google or Facebook, "streaming" serves to hide the iniquitous reality. Would we be arguing about network neutrality at all if peer-to-peer sharing, instead of download-and-delete, were the norm?
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.