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The White House and President Obama dropped the hammer on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) yesterday, pressuring the FCC to introduce rules that would strengthen protection of the "Net Neutrality" concept for consumers.

Is this something that should thrill supporters of a free and open web or just more spin from an administration looking for positive press? In this CMSWire Point/Counterpoint, we'll look at both sides of the issue.

The Pros and Cons of Net Neutrality

President Obama said yesterday that a free and open Internet is essential to the American economy — and increasingly, to our very way of life. While acknowledging that the FCC is an independent agency outside the control of the White House, Obama suggested that the FCC create a new set of rules protecting net neutrality and "ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online."

He went on to outline what he called four "simple, common-sense" steps, specifically:

  1. No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business.
  2. No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others — through a process often called “throttling” — based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.
  3. Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.
  4. No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.

"If carefully designed, these rules should not create any undue burden for ISPs, and can have clear, monitored exceptions for reasonable network management and for specialized services such as dedicated, mission-critical networks serving a hospital. But combined, these rules mean everything for preserving the Internet’s openness," Obama concluded.

Point: The White House Net Neutrality Play is Just Spin

Scott Raynovich, principal of Rayno Media Inc. and publisher of the Rayno Report

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Never mind that this is a hornet's nest of lobbyist activity, that it's a legally troubled and complicated area, or that few people can actually define net neutrality. Obama and the White House have decided to make this one of their key technology issues.

Some knowledgeable tech pundits described it as no more than political grandstanding, which will not likely have long-term implications for the Internet.

"It's a mess and it's only going to get worse," said Dan Rayburn, principal analyst at Frost and Sullivan, in a phone interview. "It's very complicated, and this doesn't solve anything.Never mind that the President doesn't have any authority over the FCC."

It's a politically high visibility issue, which may be why the politicians like to talk about it. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, an ally of President Obama's, said yesterday that he was "grateful" for Obama's efforts.

But Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tweeted that the effort amounted to "Obamacare for the Internet."

What next? The mainstream press might continue to depict this as Republicans versus Democrats, or fast lanes versus slow lanes, but the truth is net neutrality is far more complex, nuanced and difficult to resolve than one would be led to believe.

In fact, the four main points in the White Houses memo demonstrate just how complicated and naive the White House may be, trying to boil down the Internet to the themes of transparency, throttling, paid prioritization. To achieve these for bullet points, vast numbers of complicated business and technology deals would have to be regulated.

The most controversial approach may revolve around what is expected to be a legal tactic by the FCC when it introduces a revision of its proposed rules later this year. The FCC may ask to reclassify broadband Internet under the designation of Title II, making it a communications service rather than an information service, as it has historically been.

This may be no more than a legal maneuver that doesn't actually solve the problem. And it dates back to legislation -- Telecommunications Act of 1934 -- created well before the Internet existed.

"Consumers have never understood how many different providers are involved in getting you your content," says Rayburn. "Anybody realizes that if you change Title II it doesn't fix anything. It allows for discrimination if anything. If you reclassify under Title II, then you have to ask if Google needs to be reclassified under Title II."

The debate may not be about net neutrality at all, but more about the FCC's powers, and whether it is the right agency to regulate the Internet. The FCC said it may address Title II after the US Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia struck down some key elements of their proposals to introduce net neutrality earlier this year.

The problem is that the Internet isn't just one highway with "fast lanes" and "slow lanes," as the populists try to depict. It's a landscape of many interconnected highways, with many intersections and at each intersection there is a business relationship. There are content providers, there are Internet backbone middlemen, there are last-mile broadband providers. And they are all paying to get your your content or service.

Saying the government can make everything go the same speed on the Internet is kind of like saying two businesses moving product from Atlanta to New York should be guaranteed the same path and speed. But what if one of them wants to use a private jet?

The White House memo depicts net neutrality as a black and white issue, but it's really gray. And the only thing certain about how it will unfold from here is that the lobbyists and lawyers are going to make a ton of money.

Counterpoint: All Content is Created Equal

Noreen Seebacher, Chief Editor, CMSWire

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It's a weird day when I find myself agreeing with both President Obama and whistleblower Edward Snowden, two men who typically trigger my disappointment and disdain.

But, really, what can I say ... other than "You're wrong, Scott."

I don't think anyone should have the luxury of a private jet on the Internet, just because he can afford to fly one. Look how the wealthiest publishers took control of the print media a century ago, effectively eroding the idea of a truly free press. Do we want to go that route again?

Should independent sites like CMSWire take a back seat to sites run by the likes of Comcast, America's largest cable internet provider — which argued in an FCC filing that, "Title II would spark massive instability, create investor and marketplace uncertainty, derail planned investments, and slow broadband adoption?"

I don't think so, which is why CMSWire joined hundreds of other websites, from Etsy, reddit, Netflix and WordPress to adult platforms like Pornhub and Redtube, in an online protest in September to urge regulators to ban fast lanes on the Internet.

Say what you want about the technical details. But the concept of Net Neutrality is not as complicated as you make it seem.

When we log onto the Internet, we take a lot for granted. We assume we’ll be able to access any web site we want, whenever we want, at the fastest speed, whether it’s a corporate or mom-and-pop site. We assume that we can use any service we like — to watch videos, listen to webinars, send mail, search the most obscure topics — anytime we choose.

What makes all these assumptions possible is Network — or Net — Neutrality. Net Neutrality is the no discrimination concept behind the free and open Internet. It enables both major corporations – and the lowest level employees who work for them – to have equal playing fields on the Internet.

And who knows this better than Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web 25 years ago. "Eroding net neutrality, filter bubbles and centralizing corporate control all threaten the web’s wide-open spaces. It’s up to users to fight for the right to access and openness," he contends.

Even Google broke its long silence on Net Neutrality in September with a strongly worded statement opposing efforts by large Internet providers to speed up, slow down or manipulate Internet traffic that their customers request. To wit:

If Internet access providers can block some services and cut special deals that prioritize some companies’ content over others, that would threaten the innovation that makes the Internet awesome," wrote Google in a message to Internet activists Wednesday. "No Internet access provider should block or degrade Internet traffic, nor should they sell ‘fast lanes’ that prioritize particular Internet services over others."

I won't disagree that this issue is, as you say, "a hornet's nest of lobbyist activity." Just go back to earlier this year, when the FCC voted 3-2 to approve a notice of proposed rulemaking, initiating a public comment period on several approaches to "protecting and promoting the open internet," including reclassifying the internet as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act.

According to research from MapLight, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that reveals money's influence on politicians, there are some interesting correlations between opposition to the FCC proposal and political donations from cable interests. Take a look for yourself:

  • The 28 representatives signing letters to the FCC against Title II reclassification of the internet as a public utility, a position allied with the cable industry, have received, on average, $26,832 from the cable industry, 2.3 times more money than the average for all members of the House of Representatives, $11,651.
  • Republicans signing the letters against Title II reclassification of the internet as a public utility have received, on average, $59,812 from the cable industry, 5 times more than the average for all members of the House, $11,651.
  • Democrats signing the letters against Title II reclassification of the internet as a public utility have received, on average, $13,640 from the cable industry, 1.2 times more times more than the average for all members of the House, $11,651.
  • Letter signer Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) has received more money from the cable industry than any other member of the House of Representatives: $109,250 over the last two years. Walden is Chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, which has jurisdiction over the FCC.

I'm personally politically agnostic, guided by the intrinsic belief that all politicians, given long-term exposure to power, influence and potential personal gain, are equally corrupt.

Net Neutrality, a long simmering issue, gained new steam in January when a US federal appeals court struck down an FCC ruling meant to prevent ISPs from prioritizing some website traffic over others.

Obama's approval rating has hovered at or below 50 percent for more than 18 months. If taking a position on Net Neutrality is simply political grandstanding designed to win the hearts and mind of disenchanted voters, then shouldn't he have jumped at the opportunity before now? Granted, Obama has no direct control over the FCC.

But neither did Ivan Seidenberg, the former chairman and CEO of Verizon Communications, who claimed back in 2009 that the FCC would ruin the Internet's potential for economic growth and societal change if it enacted new open Internet rules.

Or, more recently, the 28 CEOs representing companies which provide Internet service to a majority of Americans who sent a letter to the FCC last May in opposition of open Internet rules. The signers included AT&T’s Randall Stephenson, Verizon’s Lowell McAdam, Comcast’s Brian Roberts, Cox Communication’s Patrick Esser and Brian Sweeney of Cablevision.

But everyone is entitled to express an opinion in this country, from CEO's with vested interests in an issue to a lame duck President who probably dreams of a higher approval rating. Everyone, Scott — including people with whom I could not disagree with more on an issue ... including you.

Your Turn

Which side of the argument do you support? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Title image by Linda Tanner  (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.