What John Oliver And His Army Of Trolls Are Getting Wrong About Net Neutrality

By: 06.03.14
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John Oliver’s brutally funny discussion of net neutrality was a welcome change of pace on a charged issue. And it’s been paying dividends. Thanks to Oliver’s rallying of the troops, the FCC’s comment system broke under the weight of people, well, weighing in.

Unfortunately, they’re targeting the wrong people and the wrong issue. Here’s what the discussion about net neutrality is getting wrong.

First, An Overview

Oliver summed it up better than we ever could, so here. Enjoy:

The only problem is really who he’s directing you to speak with.

Title II Will Not Save Us

The majority of net neutrality advocates are campaigning right for Internet service to be classified, under the Telecommunications Act of 1934, as a Title II industry, or a common carrier. Essentially, under US law, a common carrier cannot turn anyone away. That sounds great, and it actually should be done for reasons that have nothing to do with net neutrality.

One tiny problem: It doesn’t do a damn thing to guarantee net neutrality. Don’t believe us? Your mobile provider is covered under Title II, and there is absolutely no net neutrality on mobile. None. Zip. Zero. This doesn’t mean the FCC couldn’t impose rules on mobile networks, but it does mean that Title II is not a magic bullet.

In fact, the very language gives telecommunications companies a way to challenge net neutrality. A taxi is a common carrier, and you don’t pay one price to go anywhere you want in a taxi. All taxis are required to do is pull over when you flag them. The prices they set and the costs you incur are entirely up to the taxi company. If the taxi company wants to charge you a tire surcharge, and they’re the only taxi company in town, that’s not a problem under Title II.

And, in fact, putting your ISP under Title II might aggravate other ways net neutrality is being interfered with. It’s not really clear what effect making cable companies subject to Title II would have on potential mergers like Comcast and Time Warner, but consider that, since the breakup of the Bell System was undone in 1996, most of those companies have since become a part of either AT&T or Verizon.

The Problem Is The Law

All of the FCC’s ability to regulate the Internet rests on two laws, the Communications Act of 1934, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996. And they’re both terrible.

For example, if your cable company is offering you voice call services, that part of your bill is different, under the law, from the Internet you’re getting, on the same bill, from the same company, over the same cable that goes into your house. Even the terms are ridiculously archaic: You know who else is, legally speaking, a “common carrier?” Disneyland.

The FCC can’t change laws. It can impose regulations, which are interpretations of the law, but it can’t just summarily pass them. That’s Congress’ job, and that’s who we need to harass.

Better Laws, A Better Internet

Therein lies the fundamental breakdown of the net neutrality argument. It still thinks we can adhere to the old framework. We can’t; we have to pass entirely new laws, written by people who know what they’re talking about, or are at least willing to listen to people who know what they’re talking about.

So, if you really want net neutrality, write your Representatives. Telling the FCC you want net neutrality is great, but they’re tied up by badly written laws. The FCC needs to be cut loose, so we can see what actually happens.

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