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New media and grassroots users rout the old guard in US net neutrality war

Wheeler 'water'

"Water!" Wheeler explains net neutrality - yet again Photo via Flickr © Free Press Pics (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The war of attrition between entrenched senior Republicans and the Obama administration over net neutrality and regulation of the Internet has come to an end. But there is to be no armistice.

The US president and the massed ranks of web activists have won and the US regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), will today enshrine that victory by ruling that in the US the Internet will be treated as a Title II public utility under the provisions of the 81 year-old Communications Act of 1934. Thus the likes of AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon and their ilk will be prohibited in law from allowing some paid-for 'premium' fast-track data traffic to be prioritised over other data streams passing over the public Internet.

The final vote on this contentious matter will be taken later today in the US, and whilst anything could happen, it seems more than likely that the FFC's two Democratic commissioner members will vote with the Democratic chairman, Tom Wheeler, leaving the two Republican commissioners fuming but impotent on the sidelines.

Interestingly, although the defeat is bitter pill to take (some of the more intemperate of critics have called the net neutrality side of wanting a "socialist Internet" and have also referred to the proposals as "Obamacare for the Web") and a neutral Internet remains anathema to them, Capitol Hill Republicans admit that once the legislation passes they are unlikely to be able to repeal it at any time in the near- or medium-future.

The notion of the protection of the open Internet has riven US politics for the past few years with one side (including the carriers) wanting paid-for prioritisation of some Internet traffic while the other side claimed that the Internet should be open with all traffic treated equally.

The new regulations will also outlaw 'choking' or the deliberate slowing of Internet traffic originating from organisations and companies and that decline to pay broadband providers for the data streams they must carry. Furthermore, the FCC will also be empowered to intervene if what are euphemistically referred to as "unforeseen impediments" are raised by the big US broadband and cellular carriers.

Republicans were hoping to pre-empt matters in their own favour by bringing forward early pro-prioritisation legislation but they were outmanoeuvred by Senate Democrats who have held back the the draft new law until after today's FCC vote.

The pro net neutrality lobby is cock-a-hoop. Dave Steer, the director of advocacy for the Mozilla Foundation, the non-profit technology organisation behind Firefox, summed things up when he said, “We’ve been outspent and out-lobbied. We went up against the second-biggest corporate lobby in D.C. and yet it looks like we’ve won. A year ago today I didn't think we could do it.”

New Media: 1. Old Media: 0

The carriers and other vested interest were at first surprised by but dismissive of the tsunami of net neutrality support that washed through Washington but in the end the deluge dragged them from their redoubts, put them through an industrial-strength tumble-cycle and left them high, dry and gasping.

In essence, the net neutrality debate was one of the the first, but almost certainly not the last example, of new media taking on old media at their own game in a major way and successfully beating them.

The established method of winning an argument via paid lobbyists, buying media space for advertising and having the right words spoken into in the right ears in bars and restaurants inside the Beltway were overwhelmed by new media activism and the engagement of ordinary Internet service subscribers who could well see that they would be faced with yet more costs and price increases if traffic prioritisation became the norm. In other words, "It was the Web (and ordinary Web users) wot done it."

It must also be said that some carriers and ISPs over-egged the pudding more than somewhat, by claiming that what they call "heavy-handed" regulation of the Internet will result in reduced spending on infrastructure, reduced traffic speeds, increased prices and result down-the-line in the imposition of a Federal Internet tax. Some of their scare stories were downright ludicrous and the vested interests did themselves and their arguments no good by their fear-mongering tactics.

The truth is that many subscribers, already angry about the combination of high prices and indifferent services, already despised the big carriers and ISPs. They called their bluff and surprise, surprise, it resulted in the collapse of stout party.

What seems to have been the final straw that broke the Republican's back was last week's intervention by 102 companies that rely on ISPs for the continuation of their businesses. They wrote en masse to the FCC to emphasise that the likelihood that big ISPs would “abuse their gatekeeper power to impose tolls and discriminate against competitive companies is the real threat to our future” rather than “heavy-handed regulation." That particular onslaught took a lot of the wind out of conservative sails and things have been moderately quiet since.

However, battered and dispirited as they may be, the Republicans will regroup and are vowing to ensure that there that the war will restart via a series of protracted court cases.

Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the chair of the influential Commerce Committee vows that he and his colleagues will fight on. He says “One way or another, I am committed to moving a legislative solution, preferably bipartisan, to stop monopoly-era phone regulations that harm Internet consumers and innovation. Any claims that Republicans have conceded or surrendered to the Obama administration’s power-grab of the Internet through FCC action is a mischaracterisation of our ongoing efforts.”

As they say, this one will run and run.

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