TECHNOLOGY

Ahead of FCC Net Neutrality Vote, Irony and a Twitter Brawl

Ahead of a key vote on Net Neutrality, the FCC says it might start treating ISPs as utilities--making them more vulnerable to regulation.
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Personally, I don’t want my Internet access carved up into fast and slow lanes depending on how much I can afford to pay. And I'm guessing you don't either. 

But that’s exactly what's at stake on Thursday, when the Federal Communications Commission votes on a new set of rules for so-called net neutrality, a standard the FCC came up with in its Open Internet order of 2010. Essentially, it's a hands-off compromise for the way Internet traffic is routed from content producers to consumers.

A federal court overturned the net neutrality compromise this winter, siding with large Internet Service Providers--specifically Verizon, which sued the FCC--and opened the door to ISPs taking over the process. Last month, Wheeler enraged consumers, tech companies, and startups when he suggested he might just allow that to happen.

In an attempt to quell criticism, the FCC put its top lawyer, special counsel Gigi Sohn on Twitter Tuesday. The effort was met with thousands of vociferous comments, such as this:

The Twitter exchange comes at a time when demonstrators are converging in front of the FCC building in Washington, D.C., and a concerned Silicon Valley has organized to protest changes.

In a group letter to Thomas Wheeler signed by dozens of tech startups and stalwarts including Amazon, Microsoft, Dropbox, Facebook, and Google said May 7:

Over the past twenty years, American innovators have created countless Internet-based applications, content offerings, and services that are used around the world. These innovations have created enormous value for Internet users, fueled economic growth, and made our Internet companies global leaders. The innovation we have seen to date happened in a world without discrimination. An open Internet has also been a platform for free speech and opportunity for billions of users.

The irony of the FCC taking to Twitter, a social media service built on free access to the Internet, was not lost on some of the audience, who were frequently provoked by Sohn's seemingly canned answers:

"I'll definitely consider it," Sohn said jauntily in response to entrepreneur and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian's tweet:

(Translation: Could the FCC do an "ask me anything" session on Reddit about the net neutrality decision, especially given that Steve Huffman, co-founder of Reddit and I could not have created it without net neutrality.)

Ohanian has been in the news lately for his plans to post a billboard in front of FCC offices demanding that the Internet remain open and equal to all users. Several years ago, in a similar debate about the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act, he turned Reddit into a popular public debate forum which helped squash Congress' misconceived attempts to rein in Internet piracy.

Numerous times, Sohn referred to the possibility that FCC Chairman Wheeler could use Title II as a way to settle net neutrality once and for all. That’s geek speak for reclassifying ISPs as common carriers, such as telephone companies, which are regulated much more heavily and restricted in the rates they can charge customers.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler speaks with protestors who oppose plans to limit net neutrality.

But Sohn also referred many times to the federal appeals court ruling, which highlighted section 706 in the Telecommunications Act. That section gives the FCC broad power to set rules with the Internet and broadband policy, and Sohn suggested Wheeler might use it to apply net neutrality on a case by case basis.

Sohn also said many times that the ruling on Thursday is not the end of the process. In fact, there are multiple periods during which the public can weigh in on the new rules, which won't actually be formalized until the early fall. (Here's the Storify on the full chat.)

Hopefully, the FCC isn't just tweeting, but listening to what people and businesses actually want. 

IMAGES: Getty Images, Twitter via GigiBSohnFCC
Last updated: May 14, 2014

JEREMY QUITTNER | Staff Writer | Staff Writer, Inc. and Inc.com

Jeremy Quittner is a staff writer for Inc. magazine and Inc.com. He previously covered technology for American Banker and entrepreneurship for BusinessWeek.




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