In a meeting yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission, under the leadership of former yeshiva bucher Chairman Julius Genachowski (whose background in Talmud the Forward recently explored), passed a set of rules that allow the government to regulate the Internet.
Genachowski crafted his own version of the much-discussed concept of “net neutrality,” the term used to describe a free network, under which all Internet users would have the right to send and receive packets of information equally, as opposed to having that ability affected by one’s Internet Service Provider (ISP) or other parties. The Internet may now seem free, since it allows you and me to access various websites and services. But the connection and interactivity of the Internet depend on the controls of ISPs, since we pay them to connect us through their networks. They can shape our online lives. That is where the FCC steps in with its new rules.
Until now, there have been no codified rules mandating the way these ISPs such as AT&T and Verizon direct traffic between different websites. After years of pitched debate — and a campaign promise by Barack Obama to develop an open Internet — the FCC yesterday scored an unenthusiastic majority, with the three Democratic commissioners okaying the guidelines. They include:
• Transparency: Telecom companies must clearly disclose their policies.
• No blocking: ISPs may not block lawful materials. More on what this actually means later. These rules are tighter on fixed-line connections than they are on wireless/mobile devices, a distinction that has interest groups up in arms.
• ISPs may not “unreasonably discriminate” against competitors’ Internet traffic.
What does this mean? Since MitzVote is a blog, you’re now reading this item online. Maybe on your phone, maybe on your computer. Let’s assume that you’re connected to the internet through the services of AT&T. And, for the sake of this example, let’s also assume that AT&T publishes a journal that competes with the Forward. To promote AT&T’s own interest, it could prevent you from accessing our website, by delivering a message that says something like, “this website is not available.”
(Actually, a similar situation did unfold, with Comcast blocking peer-to-peer video applications that competed with its own offerings. The FCC’s sanctions on Comcast were struck down in court).
Another, more likely, theoretical: You’re surfing the web through AT&T’s internet services. You want to use Google Voice to place a phone call. It would be in AT&T’s competitive interest to block Google Voice to divert you toward its own offerings, but the new rules prohibit AT&T from doing that.
What would be allowed under the rules — though not encouraged — is paid priority for different sites: if Skype wanted better service or more traffic diverted to its site and services than Google Voice, AT&T could charge more for better service. Free-market advocates say this right is necessary for competition; internet purists say this relegates all companies who will not or cannot pay for boosted services to a second-tier, low-powered side of the internet.
Though the rules passed through the commission, this is not the end. It is unclear whether these rules could withstand legal challenges, as legislation never gave the FCC the explicit authority to police the Internet.
Today’s meeting followed Genachowski’s early December announcement of an initial plan. Since then, Genachowski has met with various parties and altered the framework to be slightly more to the liking of Democratic Comissioner Michael Copps — language added seems to discourage tiered traffic — who said at the meeting that the tweaks moved the rules from unacceptable to “something with which I can concur.”
Copps added: “Without any action today, the wheels of net neutrality would come to a screeching halt for the next two years.”
Indeed, by taking action, the FCC contravened an interpretation of the First Amendment that’s gained traction in telecommunications circles. Some posit that since the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,” it’s actually a negative directive, with the emphasis on “making no law.”
While net neutrality isn’t specifically a Jewish issue, it affects everyone reading this now. And it’s also a test case for the thinking of Genachowski — who is apparently still reaping fruit from the deliberative skills that earned him the Talmud award in high school all those years ago. He himself called the proposal a “strong and balanced order.”
As Amy Schatz, a Wall Street Journal reporter, said it in a video about the meeting: “If nobody’s happy, then I guess, yeah, you reached some kind of compromise.”
But for now, we say: Teiku.