Internet Freedom Act – What’s In a Name?

by Dave Michels

When did names become so hard to decipher?

Today, Senator John McCain introduced a bill called Internet Freedom Act. The legislation says the FCC “shall not propose, promulgate, or issue any regulations regarding the Internet or IP-enabled services.”

This sounds pretty good on the surface. Who is opposed to Freedom? Not to mention the soundbites supporting this Act such as it will protect the Internet from “onerous federal regulation,” and will prevent a “government takeover” of the Internet that will stifle innovation and depress an ‘already anemic’ job market in the US.”

The bill was introduced today in response to the FCC’s intent (yesterday) to move forward on net neutrality rules. This is a very explosive topic regarding rules of the Internet and appears to be largely split between party lines. I generally avoid political subjects in this blog – and will actually avoid my stance. Suffice to say the topic has sparked a furious debate and lobbying war.

Net Neutrality has to do with if Internet traffic should be subject to restrictions on content, sites, or platforms, and if so who sets the restrictions. The debate is similar to what voice networks went through with CarterPhone decision, the MFJ, and even universal access.

This post isn’t about net neutrality. It is about disguising actions with misleading titles/initiatives. This is something becoming normal procedure by both parties. My specific position is the Internet Freedom Act is a highly misleading name.

For proper context, let me compare this to our First Amendment. Freedom of speech is our right to speak without censorship or limitation. Specifically:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Constitution does not actually give people freedom of speech, religion, or press. Instead, it restricts infringement of these rights. This is very important. The Government does not regulate newspapers and their content – such action is prohibited. Without this First Amendment, there would be opportunity for such regulation. A recent article I read questioned why the White House provides press credentials to Fox News, because they have to is the short answer.

This is the irony of The Internet Freedom Act. The FCC wants to prohibit carriers and others from tiered Internet routing services. A good title for that might be “Internet Freedom”. If carriers cannot intervene with tiers or priorities – traffic becomes free just as speech is free above.

The wrongly named “Internet Freedom Act” would allow ISPs and carriers to set their own policies and restrictions. There is merit to enabling carriers to set their own policies; for example voice over Internet would be more reliable if the carrier were allowed to prioritize voice packets. But it gets very sticky very quickly with carriers opting to block/cripple sites, services, or traffic types (as Comcast recently did with P2P traffic). Tiered services can make a lot of sense – the post office does it with their postage class tiers (first class mail is sent faster than third class).

McCain should have introduced his bill with a name like “Internet Class Act” or “ISP Authorities Act” or even “Declaration of Internet Independence”. But those titles are not as easy to support without additional clarification.

As I said, there are benefits associated with McCain’s bill -but instead of discussing them; he went for misleading soundbites. He is suggesting that the “Internet Freedom Act” will prevent “onerous federal regulation” of the Internet. Actually, its the simple rule of neutrality that eliminates a need for regulation (enforcement yes). Conversely, if providers could block sites or traffic types there would need to be some form of monitoring like the PUC does today with telephone services.

Long ago, calls were placed through a switchboard operator. The operator had the ability to influence the call. Legend has it that Almon Strowger believed operators were consistently routing calls to a competitor – so he invented the first telephone switch. This took place back in 1888, long before telephone regulation. It is unlikely that 1000s of carriers and ISPs freely setting traffic and routing policies would not invite regulation; also known as onerous government involvement.

The Internet is becoming our primary means of communication. It doesn’t surprise me that many of the same issues we wrestled with over voice are resurfacing in new contexts. The problem is a dialog is nearly impossible when highly complex issues are reduced to misleading soundbites. While opponents to Net Neutrality have legitimate strong points, they are completely lost when their champion confessed to never using the Internet and resorts to false imagery.

The topic appears to be moving front and center and I encourage readers to brush up on it. The rules set for Net Neutrality will have significant and long term ramifications.