Can the Internet Remain Open for Everyone?

PHOTO: Google and Verizon have proposed a new internet policy that would allow tiered, private Internet.
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The FCC's much-debated Internet neutrality rules are set to go into effect on Nov. 20. This will be a major milestone in the Internet's history. From Day One the Internet has thrived because of its unique open platform that supports endless innovation and robust speech.

The concept of Internet neutrality assures us access to whatever websites we want to visit. It lets us use any services we want -- watching videos, listening to streaming radio stations from around the world, tweeting play-by-play updates from sporting matches -- at any time we want. Internet neutrality guarantees that all happens on a level playing field. Internet service providers (ISPs) are not allowed to play Internet "traffic cop," meaning they cannot pick and choose what websites you can visit, nor can they speed up or slow down content from any particular website or service.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has asserted that Internet neutrality is "the First Amendment issue of our time," and that is not just political hyperbole. The soapboxes of the 21st Century -- not to mention the printing presses, libraries and political campaigns -- are now accessed via the Internet. That is why the Internet neutrality rules are so important.

It was a hard-fought battle to adopt the rules, however, and opponents are in no mood to give up. In Congress, the FCC's political foes will try to employ the little-used Congressional Review Act to nullify the agency's decision. And in court, the FCC's rules are being challenged by those who think the rules go too far and those who think they don't go far enough.

As the rhetoric and legal posturing heats up, myths and misperceptions proliferate. For example, Verizon is preparing to argue in court that, in delivering content to its customers, it is exercising its First Amendment rights, boldly comparing its need to exercise "editorial discretion" with that of newspapers and cable TV operators.

Do you think of your Internet browsing being edited the way your daily newspaper is edited? Do you expect your ISP to select what content you'll have access to, the way your cable operator selects your channel lineup? Me neither. But if the argument prevails, the future of the Internet will be much less open, innovative and free.

With so much hanging in the balance, here is a look at some of the most common myths about the FCC's openness rules. For all the teeth-gnashing this issue has generated, the truth is that the FCC's rules are actually quite moderate. They are also sufficiently flexible to account for future technological changes. This is an area where rhetoric quickly outstrips reality.

Myth: Once the rules take effect, the FCC will become the government's Internet Regulator.

Reality: The rules apply narrowly, only to companies that provide Internet access -- the Internet's physical "on ramps" which provide "last mile" connectivity between the Internet and your home. Under the rules, the vast amount of speech, commerce and civic and social activity that flows across the Internet remains unregulated.

Myth: The FCC rules will radically change how the Internet works.

Reality: Just the opposite: the rules protect against radical changes in the way the Internet works, by ensuring that consumers will continue to have access the full Internet without tampering or favoritism. The rules prevent ISPs from discarding traditional Internet access in favor of a more restricted, supervised offering. The ISPs claim they never had any intention of doing so in the first place. Since the rules reflect the way the Internet already works, key ISPs such as AT&T and Comcast have said they don't object to them.

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