Imagine that your Internet service provider hampered your access to legal websites or blocked them altogether — for profit or for no reason at all. Say, for instance, that your broadband provider disabled Google because another search engine paid for exclusive rights. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has made this world possible by limiting the Federal Communications Commission's authority to keep the Internet open for unfettered exchange of information. A ruling last week says the Internet is not a utility under federal law, so the FCC can't enforce the important principle of "net neutrality."
Now it is up to the FCC with a possible assist from Congress to answer back. The agency should redefine broadband providers as what they are — utilities that provide a pipeline for information — and bar them from picking winners and losers in the free flow of information. If the courts decide the FCC doesn't have that power, then Congress should act.
Net neutrality is a simple concept. Broadband providers should treat all legal information on the Web equally. The ISP owns the pipeline, but it should not pick favorites and control what flows through it.
Verizon had challenged the FCC's 2010 Open Internet Order, which codified net neutrality. Although the court seems to value net neutrality, it sided with Verizon, largely because the FCC classified broadband years ago as an "information service," which can't be so tightly regulated, rather than as a telecommunications service, which is subject to closer oversight. Broadband providers who have spent billions building their high-speed networks have argued that they have the right to manage them as they see fit. Verizon says it believes in net neutrality, but it is now under no legal obligation to honor it.
In reality, most Internet providers face little competition, though many residents of the Tampa Bay area are lucky to have a choice. Without competition, Internet users have to accept the terms their provider offers. If a provider lets Hulu or Amazon Prime pay for faster or even exclusive movie service, you would be out of luck if you wanted to watch Netflix. Or what if a broadband provider denied access to a political site it just didn't like?
Remember MySpace? What if it had cut a deal with broadband providers to be the exclusive social network when Facebook was just starting up? It would be a very different world today. Giving companies with deep pockets the ability to game the system for their own benefit is bad policy and would let them squeeze both consumers and small, innovative startups.
The stakes are high, because the Internet is the main conduit for information in today's high-tech world. But it's really quite simple: Broadband providers should control only the pipeline. It should be up to consumers to decide what flows through it.