NSFW: Net neutrality, the FCC, and the future of the Internet

NSFW is a weekly op-ed column in which I talk about whatever's on my mind. Sometimes it'll have something to do with the technology we cover here on iMore; sometimes it'll be whatever pops into my head. Your questions, comments and observations are welcome.

Net neutrality is the simple idea that data on the Internet should be treated equally, regardless of where it comes from or where it goes to. It's a pretty simple idea, and pretty straightforward. So why is it being bludgeoned by both sides in Washington as a political weapon?

For several years it was the standing order of the Federal Communications Commission, until earlier this year. A federal appeals court ruled that the FCC didn't actually have the legal authority to mandate how Internet service providers treat data on their networks, mainly because it had already classified them differently than so-called "common carriers" like phone companies.

The FCC decided rather than appeal the order, it would go back to the drawing board and draft new regulations.

President Obama's announcement this week is that he supports the reclassification of Internet service providers under Title II of the FCC's own regulatory framework, which would require them to abide by the same sort of regulations that telecommunications companies have to operate under.

Meanwhile, Obama foe Senator Ted Cruz (R, Texas) lambasted the President's statement, calling net neutrality "Obamacare for the Internet." That scores points with his political base, and undoubtedly pleases his campaign contributors. But Cruz is absolutely wrong to compare net neutrality, and even Title II classification, with the Affordable Care Act.

That's because in outlining his rationale for the reclassification, Obama says point-blank "while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services." Obama says that the government shouldn't be regulating things like how much people are paying for Internet access, just guaranteeing that people have unfettered access to the data they want.

Tom Wheeler, the head of the FCC, has said from the start that Title II reclassification is something that the FCC can do. He and the rest of his organization have been careful not to threaten ISPs with it, suggesting instead that they'd take a "case by case basis" approach to making sure that service providers continue to voluntarily abide by the principles of an open Internet.

Obama's statement alone was enough to spook AT&T, or at least gave AT&T the pretext for acting spooked, saying it was going to "pause" its buildout of a 100-city fiber optic network until the issue was settled. Which will be more fodder for foes of the current administration to use to claim that the government shouldn't be meddling in the affairs of business.

For their part, Comcast, Verizon and others all acknowledge the importance of open Internet access, but they're against the Title II classification. They see additional government regulation as burdensome and onerous, saying it'll slow the pace of innovation. Though that's as much of a threat as it is a prognostication, as evidenced by AT&T's "pause."

Some proponents of net neutrality point (wrongly) to the recent imbroglio between Comcast and Netflix as an example of why this issue is so important. Comcast famously throttled Netflix traffic on its network until the company agreed to pay them to deliver traffic to its customers.

On its surface, this certainly sounds like a net neutrality issue — after all, shouldn't all data be treated the same? But it's not quite that easy. At least from the ISP's perspective, there's a difference between slowing down data on their network, and simply not allowing it in the door to begin with.

It's what's called a peering arrangement, and peering arrangements between ISPs and big content providers — Netflix, Google, Apple — have existed for decades. Companies pay out money to ISPs to handle the exchange of vast amounts of their traffic.

The FCC is reviewing interconnection arrangements separately from the net neutrality issue, and Wheeler has reassured reporters that they're working to better understand how consumers are affected by such arrangements. We'll see what that means for you and me long-term when it comes to watching streaming videos from services like Netflix, or downloading new apps from the App Store.

I certainly agree with the principles of net neutrality, and I expect most of you do too, as evidenced by the stampede of petitioners the FCC saw during its net neutrality public comment period.

A lot of this is just common sense: The Internet should work for everyone. Interconnection arrangements like that between Netflix and Comcast should be open and transparent, and easy to understand by consumers, who are directly affected by these arrangements. And so-called "fast lane" access — paid prioritization for some data over others — is just a rotten idea.

Whether that means classifying ISPs as utilities under the FCC's Title II regulatory authority or just hanging that over their heads in the event that they screw up is something I'll leave to policy wonks. But for my part, I just want to be able to access what I need when I need it without worrying about what's happening upstream.