Truth: sometimes we journalists get tired of reporting a story. And I'll admit it -- trying to describe Net Neutrality a different way every day this week hasn't been easy. But most people we talk to about the issue of whether Internet service providers should deliver all data to the user with equal speed agree it's significant -- maybe the most significant Internet issue of the decade.
For as long as we've all been online, we've basically been able to access web pages with equal speed -- no matter what web page we're trying to get to and what company is helping us get there. But that could be changing; today's Federal Communications Commission vote on new Open Internet Rules could allow for so-called "fast lane" deals, where a company like Netflix pays a company like Verizon or Comcast to make sure you don't get the spinning pinwheel of sadness. Many people say these deals would stifle innovation (making it hard for the next Netflix-like startup to get off the ground without forking over money it doesn't have yet), and allow service providers to degrade the quality of our connections. Others say that more oversight from the FCC would do the same. It's always super helpful when two sides in a debate use the exact same potentialities to argue their case, isn't it?
But the real question is this: what analogy is best for this big, hot mess? Because a hot mess it is. And part of the mess is that it's so hard to describe and understand. On Wednesday, Sen. Al Franken told me Internet service providers should be considered common carriers -- just like the companies that have covered the country in a web of phone lines. He's even made a video to promote his position:
On today's show, University of Pennsylvania professor Christopher Yoo explains his opposition to that idea by comparing the Internet to the postal service. Sometimes, Yoo says, you should be allowed to pay extra for FedEx or Priority Mail Express, so that your package gets to its destination faster than it would with regular old snail mail. Maybe it's like electricity?
I was arguing with Stacey Vanek Smith a few weeks back about Netflix making a deal with Comcast and trying to use the highway analogy -- but I got fouled up trying to decide who the toll booth operators were. I was talking with Vox managing editor Nilay Patel this week -- he thinks the FCC is about to turn the Internet into airport security.
The idea I keep coming back to is that of the Gordian knot -- an intractible problem that seems like it should have a simple solution. But a simple solution isn't in sight, so that doesn't work. So I put it to you: how would you describe the movement of information on the Internet? And what does that say about your position in the debate?
The recently-announced plans by chairman Tom Wheeler and the FCC to create an internet "fast lane" have been met by a great deal of skepticism from those who worry that large companies could pay to speed past the competition. But Christopher Yoo, professor of Law, Communication, and Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that offering a pricing system for internet speed makes sense.
Yoo points to the varying services one can pay for when sending a package. If a package can take longer to get somewhere, you pay less. But if the arrival date is imperative, then you should pay more.
"If you force everything into a single class of service, you would force people who would have been willing to take slower service to pay more, and you would deny people really fast service the ability to get it at any price."
Others believe that the internet should be re-classified by the FCC as a common carrier. Yoo argues that in light of recent Supreme Court rulings, it would be difficult for the FCC to claim authority to do so.
To Yoo, its also a moot point. He says that even services defined as common carriers are allowed to create different tiers of service as long as they don't have rules explicitly prohibiting anyone from paying for the better service.
"The 'Common Carrier' regime has always acknolwedged that providers can create different classes of service as long as they charge everyone who wants that class of service the same amount....it wouldn’t prevent internet service providers from creating a fast lane in the first place."
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