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Net Neutrality Decision Nears—and No One Understands It

July 22, 2014

As the Federal Communications Commission nears a decision on the so-called “net neutrality” proposal, sifting through an avalanche of comments submitted by advocates on both sides, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: This year will more than likely be the year that changes the Internet forever.

Most have probably heard that phrase before. And others might think it’s somewhat trite considering the very essence of the Internet is its capacity to change, so any new iteration wouldn't come as a surprise. But the war of words, op-eds, proposals and lobbyists being waged should not go unnoticed. Several fundamental issues shaping the very core of not only democracy, but human communication as we know it, are at stake, regardless of the decision. At the moment, all signs point to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler attempting to chisel out a middle ground.

That’s happening as this week marked the final stretch of various interests—from tech industry mainstays to telecommunications titans and an array of consumer advocates—weighing in on competing policy proposals. It’s not done yet, however. The next stage is the reply comment phase which will end September 10. 

As the net neutrality debate begins to sharpen in focus, the lines drawn are becoming much clearer. There is a philosophical issue about the Internet, especially with the evolving Internet of Things, becoming a utility like phone service, water and electricity. There’s another debate over whether net neutrality abrogates certain essential pillars of democracy, such as what former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell argues in a recent op-ed; and there is the argument that it enhances it, as what Free Press Internet campaign director Josh Levy argues. On one side are the Googles and Facebooks who bring us the content we happily (and sometimes not so happily) muddle through. On the other side are the AT&Ts and Verizons who are like Scotty in Star Trek, the engineers who claim to burn through expensive bandwidth to power it all up.

The big digital brands, collectively under the Internet Association, are already suggesting the FCC isn’t capable of making good decisions on net neutrality because one major provision, Title II and section 706, does not reflect the Internet’s increasingly mobile nature. Reading Forrester’s Mobile Mind Shift might not be such a bad idea if they haven’t already.

This is one of the most nuanced and least publicly understood policy debates in Washington—yet, it is by far the most consequential one, since the Internet defines the world we live in. VentureBeat’s Gregory Ferenstein made an attempt at a poll on the issue through use of Google Consumer Surveys. He ended up finding that the majority of Americans, 57 percent, had no idea what net neutrality is—but 55 percent of those who did favored it. There were similar findings in a YouGov poll a few days before, with 63 percent claiming they've never heard of the term. Ultimately, 74 percent of respondents agreed with net neutrality once they understood it. 

Thus, public attitudes on net neutrality will become much more apparent once comments are wrapped up and the FCC moves forward with a decision …. and, probably, once regulators implement new net neutrality rules (or not) … and, well, probably once the impact of that implementation is felt or reflected through any number of things, from the speed of a Netflix stream to the cost of your cable bill. At that point, Congress will certainly feel the heat and lawsuits will reach the Supreme Court.

What we do know is that the issue is so important that it has attracted the “highest concurrent commenting levels that [the FCC’s] Electronic Comment Filing System has seen in its 17-plus year history,” according to FCC Chief Information Officer David Bray in a blogThe CIO's blog was just short of prescient as the FCC website he's sworn to protect suddenly crashed on Tuesday from a wave of eleventh-hour procrastinators rushing to file—right before the agency announced an extension (in a bid to prevent such crashes more than likely). In the meantime, the first round of comments just got an extension—as of the filing of this blog—to Friday, July 18, at midnight. For more on net neutrality and what the whole debate means, Forrester’s Henry Dewing offers some thoughtful blogging and a research note.

Charles Ellison is a senior analyst relations strategist for TEKsystems. He keeps close tabs on changes and public policy shaping the innovation space. He is also a former congressional staffer, senior aide to state and local elected officials and an expert advocacy strategist. You can reach him with questions and comments @twoARguys via Twitter.

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