If you’ve been on Twitter in the past few weeks, there’s a decent chance you’ve seen promoted tweets from Comcast like the one below.
Now, if Comcast wasn’t consistently rated as one of America’s most hated companies, you might be inclined to believe that Title II is, indeed, not the same as Net Neutrality. But in reality, Comcast is loathed by a tremendous portion of its customer base, and as a major gatekeeper between the public and internet access, their claims deserve considerable scrutiny.
So, what actually is Title II? In short, its a major provision of the Communications Act of 1934, which establishes regulations for common carriers, or any person or company that transports goods or people, and is responsible for the well-being of those goods or people while they’re in transit (if you want to read the whole thing, here’s all 333 pages of the law.) Most importantly, common carriers are not allowed to discriminate between customers and their transported goods.
In 1934, there was obviously no internet, and the law applied primarily to phone providers and utilities: the Bell System was not allowed to deliberately prioritize some customers’ phone calls over others’, nor could electric companies keep the lights on for only some of its customers. Crucially, it also set penalties for common carriers who violate those principles.
Earlier this week, the FCC voted 2-1 along party lines to reverse President Obama’s 2015 Open Internet Order in favor of the not-at-all-suspiciously-named Restoring Internet Freedom (RIF) proposal. Under RIF, ISPs would be reclassified as information services under Title I of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which gives them much greater latitude to manipulate data, and the federal government considerably lesser ability to regulate them. If say, Time Warner, wants to reduce Netflix’s bandwidth in favor of its own streaming service, or in favor of Hulu because Hulu gave Time Warner a bunch of money, then Time Warner can do so without fear of government interference. If you’re a Netflix customer with Cablevision, that’s really tough for you.
While Comcast’s selected group of mostly Republican lawmakers and right wing think tank leaders, cited in the tweeted link above, make frequent references to freedom, openness, and other lofty ideals, removing ISPs from Title II and its regulatory framework would promote an internet that represents something very different. Large ISPs would be able to dominate and shape aspects of the internet in ways that are contradictory to the desires of their customers, the individuals that comprise the community that is the internet. Many of the core principles of net neutrality would still exist on paper, but would be largely unenforcable.
The final binding vote on RIF is likely to be held later this year. Public comments can be made until 17 July, with reply comments open until 16 August. For the time being, comments are temporarily closed, but once they reopen, please make yourself heard here.