Net neutrality another election loser

Many key supporters of a fair and free Internet lost their election bids; will the FCC do its job?

Published November 4, 2010 7:45PM (EDT)

House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio

There's no way to sugar-coat this: Since Tuesday, network neutrality isn't quite dead, but may well be in a coma. That's the only rational way to look at the results of the 2010 elections, which saw some of net neutrality's major backers go down to defeat.

Network neutrality is the idea that your broadband Internet provider -- almost always a local cable or phone company -- isn't making decisions about what you can use on the Internet. That is, your ISP should not decide which bits of data get to your computer in what order or at what speed, much less whether they will ever get there at all.

Among the most damaging congressional losses will take place with the departure of Rep. Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat, who lost his reelection bid. No one in that chamber has a better grasp of technology issues, not even Silicon Valley's representatives. Boucher wasn't just a strong supporter of net neutrality on tech policy; as chair of the House Communications, Technology and Internet subcommittee he used his authority over tech policy in generally progressive ways. Democrats weren't fully in support of net neutrality to begin with, but Republicans, ever-loyal to the big-money corporate interests, have decided that the duopoly is all the competition we need.

The robber barons who run our local telecom duopolies and the barely competitive mobile networks are surely thrilled with their good luck. They aren't stupid enough to believe voters tossed out Boucher and other net-neutrality supporters on that issue alone, or that voters even gave it much thought, but they'll definitely take advantage of the circumstances.

The Federal Communications Commission has been relatively timid on net neutrality, working mostly at the edges of the debate; witness its move to partially reclassify broadband service -- a regulatory approach that would give the commission more authority to prevent carriers from discriminating against certain kinds of content. That's a relatively timid move (though useful), but even this limited progress is under attack. And President Obama's campaign promises to push hard for net neutrality seem hollow, at best.

Meanwhile, America falls further and further in the deployment of serious broadband. And the carriers are closer than ever to turning the Internet, which should be the most open of networks, into just another kind of cable television.

By Dan Gillmor

A longtime participant in the tech and media worlds, Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. Follow Dan on Twitter: @dangillmor. More about Dan here.

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Network Neutrality