Debt Ceiling 2013: Why Net Neutrality is On the Chopping Block in the House

Think the government shutdown is bad? Just wait for the impending debt ceiling debacle as October 15 approaches. House Republicans want to extort a slew of conservative goodies over the debt ceiling rise, including a plan to trash the internet as we know it.

According to a legislative outline obtained by National Review, part of the GOP plan is to insist on a host of “regulatory reform” measures designed to placate big-money donors as part of any debt ceiling package. One such proposal is “Blocking Net Neutrality,” a policy passed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as part of the 2010 Open Internet Order.  

So, for the layman, what exactly is net neutrality, and why is the House GOP so against it?

A new short film on the subject goes a long way in explaining just that.

Released on September 8, LEAKED: The Internet Must Go is a “mockumentary” that follows the story of John Wooley, a market research consultant hired by the big four Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to develop tactics for selling the public on a fundamental shift in internet usage. Their plan is to provide faster and easier access for websites who pay a premium. It would also allow ISPs to charge internet users extra to access the sites they want.

As a series of expert interviews chip away at John's edifice of beliefs, he finds himself submitting a very different report than his clients expected.

The ISPs’ proposition against net neutrality rests on the allocation of bandwidth, the measurement of available resources for data communication. The more bandwidth is available on a network, the faster one's connection is. With more and more Americans coming online, ISPs are arguing that each new user takes up increasing bandwidth, making the internet slower for everyone. Their solution is to build “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” to divvy up the space. And to get more, you’ve got to pay. As in: to watch the whole series of Breaking Bad over four consecutive days at high speed on a Comcast network, Netflix will have to pay them off (and in turn likely raise subscription fees).

The current net neutrality rules effectively block the ISPs from implementing this on wired connections, and to a much lesser extent on mobile connections.

The film’s release was tied to oral arguments heard on September 9 in Verizon v. FCC, a lawsuit against the new rules on the purported grounds that the FCC lacks the constitutional and regulatory authority to govern the internet. Verizon is also suing on the pretext that its First Amendment rights were violated, claiming that its role as an ISP allows it to pick and choose which services it ought to provide.

In an interview, Gena Konstantinakos, the film’s creator, told me that “net neutrality really just means that your [ISP] doesn't get to mess around with what websites you have access to or how fast they load.” Calling the internet “critical infrastructure that we all rely on,” she believes that the ISP monopoly — Verizon and AT&T control wireless access, while TimeWarner and Comcast dominate wired — prevents meaningful competition and ensures such abuses.

“I wanted to try to communicate the importance of net neutrality and what the stakes are in a way that the average person who doesn’t necessarily identify as a tech geek or a policy wonk would actually tune in for,” Konstantinakos said.

In this sense, LEAKED is a major success, boiling the point down so far as to strip it of any pretense that it’s a policy issue. It’s a human rights issue, the film argues, and Konstantinakos “can think of few things as important as our right, ability, and freedom to connect.”

Since monopolies distort the functioning of the marketplace as much as, if not more than, government intervention, let's hope that the GOP holds up their free market principles and rejects the measure. But as long as internet cartels keep heaving cash at Congress, I wouldn't hold my breath.