Just before the end of the year, the Federal Communications Commission made a second try at preserving principles of openness on the Internet – often clumsily called “net neutrality,” but better contextualized as an effort to prevent data discrimination.
There’s been loads of coverage of the decision and predictions of its ultimate success as a regulatory tool. Advocates and critics alike are correct when they say that the issue is more than just one thing – it’s multiple attributes of Internet freedom that are on the line here.
However, I think Susan Crawford and Rob Frieden are onto something when they place the crux of the problem within the “last mile” of Internet connectivity. At present, most Americans have just two choices for broadband provision: the phone company or cable company. The up-and-coming “new” vector, wireless broadband, is basically an extension of the phone company.
Given that the FCC’s latest attempt at rulemaking differentiates between “wired” and “wireless” broadband provision (allowing the providers of the latter more flexibility to data-discriminate), any expansion of the wireless vector is not going to promote competition within the wired space, which will remain the primary provider of broadband to the home and office for the near future.
I hope we don’t look back on the first decade of the 2000s as “the good old years” of the Internet – and I hope the shape of the “new” Internet, as defined by these new rules, still promotes innovation and a free exchange of ideas. But I’m worried – so long as the FCC refuses to regulate broadband under universal conditions (regardless of how you get it), there’s too many loopholes mitigating against that outcome.