Neutrality partisans portray themselves as trying to block a new initiative from the telecom companies. Neutrality opponents portray themselves as trying to block a new regulatory initiative. In the abstract, there’s a case to be made for both characterizations of the situation, but it’s hard to miss the fact that almost all (or maybe [literally] all ? I’m not quite sure how to do a precise head count) of the internet’s technical pioneers see neutrality as preserving the longstanding rules of the road.
I’m not the most full-throated defender of net neutrality in the blogosphere, but I think this is a bad case of he-said-she-said evenhandedness. The net neutrality supporters pretty clearly have the better argument here: net neutrality was effectively the law of the land for decades until an FCC decision last year eliminated it. There would be nothing “new” about re-establishing it as a regulatory principle.
The 1996 Telecommunications Act defined two different types of service, information services (IS) and telecommunications services (TS), and cable companies were originally classified as IS and telephone companies as TS. Although both cable companies and telcos provide local internet access, the backbone of the internet is carried exclusively by telcos, which were regulated as common carriers under the tighter TS rules. The common carrier rules effectively enforced the principles of net neutrality on the internet backbone.
A series of court cases between 2000 and 2005 changed all this. When the smoke cleared, the Supreme Court had beaten back a challenge to the FCC and confirmed that they could legally classify cable modem services as IS. More important, though, the court ruled that the FCC had broad technical authority to decide how to regulate various services, and that left the FCC free to classify DSL and the internet backbone as IS too. Which they did. On August 5, 2005, the FCC reclassified DSL as an IS and issued four net neutrality “principles” that essentially replaced the common carrier requirements that had been part of the older TS regime. The whole point of the FCC’s actions was to drastically reduce the regulation of DSL, and the FCC’s own statement described their action as “consistent with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the Commission’s light regulatory treatment of cable modem service.”
That may or may not have been a good idea. But the fact remains that until August 5 of last year net neutrality was the legal standard that applied to the telcos that operated the internet backbone. There’s nothing new about it.