When’s the last time a television comic galvanized a mass audience with material based on an FCC vote about a complicated collection of tech regulations? Never, I’d guess. But it happened this week when John Oliver served up a routine about net neutrality on his topical HBO show Last Week Tonight. Viewers responded to his call to flood the agency with comments on the subject, which likely contributed — if it didn’t cause — a temporary crash of the FCC’s servers. In any case, it highlighted the broad concern about net neutrality: The FCC has recently received more than 64,400 comments and 301,000 emails on the subject, Chairman Tom Wheeler tweeeted after Oliver’s show, good naturedly urging advocates to “Keep ‘em coming.”
He won’t have to worry. Net roots activists and opponents of government regulation are becoming energized by a recent FCC vote to prevent unfair Internet practices after a court early this year remanded net neutrality rules regulators passed in 2010. Open Internet supporters say Wheeler and his colleagues’ effort didn’t go far enough. Others warn the FCC not to mess with the Web’s still-developing economic ecosystem.
Related: FCC Approves Net Neutrality Proposal
Here’s an overview of the issues, and the stakes:
Q: What does net neutrality mean?
A: Generally speaking, net neutrality means that an Internet service provider (ISP) — such as cable or phone company — treats all content equally. For example, it doesn’t offer faster transmissions for Netflix videos than it does for those from Amazon Prime.
Q: Is this a widespread problem?
A: Not yet, but open Internet advocates say it could become one. They note that cable companies have a long history of using their gatekeeper power to favor channels that they own, and require others to make financial concessions in order to be carried or find a home at a low number on the dial (desirable) as opposed to a high one (undesirable).
Q: Why shouldn’t the Internet operate the same way? Isn’t that how markets work?
A: Net neutrality advocates say that the Internet is too important to the economy and democracy to let companies such as Comcast and Verizon effectively pick winners and losers. ISPs might favor big, established businesses over entrepreneurs, and mainstream opinions over dissenting ones. And there are too few alternatives: Cable companies dominate sales of the fastest speed wired service; the market share for telco DSL services is declining. AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint offer wireless broadband, but they don’t have enough airwave spectrum to affordably match cable’s speed. Read More »