As the long debate over net neutrality closes in on a watershed decision, Republicans and Democrats are scrambling to compromise on how to protect the open internet.
Net neutrality is the idea that the Internet should be a free-for-all informational playground that provides same-speed access to all users, where Exxon and Joe the Plumber have an equal shot at reaching consumers. Without it, internet service providers like Comcast and AT&T could sell priority listings to the highest bidder or block those who don't pay, effectively squeezing out the basement start-up businessman in favor of wealthy corporations.
In countries with questionable free speech, net neutrality overlaps with human rights -- for example China banning Google in order to keep its citizens in the dark about the Tiananmen Square Massacre or Egypt pulling Twitter in the Arab Spring. At home, the regulation of internet companies has embroiled politicians in a finer struggle over how to maintain fair access for all without giving government too much control.
It's a classic partisan feud. Once President Barack Obama started calling for the Federal Communication Commission to start treating internet service providers like utilities, Republicans in Congress rose up to denounce net neutrality as government overreach. Most famously, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) blasted Democrats' designs on regulation as "Obamacare for the internet."
Nowadays, Republicans are suddenly on the side of net neutrality. Just instead of giving the FCC the same control over internet companies that it currently exercises over utility companies, Republicans want to pass a specific set of regulations that addresses net neutrality only. U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) proposes prohibiting internet service providers from blocking web traffic and offering paid prioritization of content on both wireline and mobile platforms.
U.S. Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota's own net neutrality champion in Congress, remains staunch on the belief that broadband internet should be recognized as a telecommunications service. He says it's the only way the FCC would have the power to not only make rules to protect the open internet, but to defend those rules against lawsuits.
"It's crucial that the Commission issues rules without delay, and that it does so in a manner that will survive court challenges," Franken says. "Last year, key rules that the FCC had adopted in 2010 to prevent unreasonable discrimination and blocking were struck down in federal court."
University of Minnesota computer science Prof. Joe Konstan says although Republican regulations do seem like good suggestions now, internet communications could look drastically different in two years. Casual web surfing could turn into syncing home refrigerator stock to grocery store inventory for example. He says too much specificity in the guidelines won't suit a rapidly adaptive technology.
Democrats seem to be on the right track in that internet connectivity has become pretty similar to telephone or electric services. Yet there's so much more potential for competition in internet services that treating everything like a utility could make innovation -- such as the shift from broadcast television to video streaming -- difficult.
At the end of the day, whatever solution a bipartisan compromise reaches ought to make sure that "the things that are working well today aren't sacrificed in the name of seeking profits through new ideas," Konstan says.
The FCC will vote on new net neutrality rules February 26.
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