Thursday, November 13, 2014

Net Neutrality: An Interview

November 13, 2014, 12:15 p.m.

Introduction: Because of the recent attention to net neutrality by the Federal Communications Commission and President Obama, I have received requests for explanations from a number of individuals. Given Vanessa Miller's excellent interview and explanations, I am taking the liberty of reproducing here her story from The Gazette of November 12, 2014, as it appeared online two days earlier. The story is copyright by The Gazette, and will be taken down if the paper requests. Information about subscribing to The Gazette can be found here.

UI professor and former FCC commissioner sides with Obama on net neutrality
Johnson: ‘The Internet holds so much promise for everybody’

The Gazette, November 12, 2014, p. A9

Net neutrality garnered national attention this week after President Barack Obama called on the Federal Communications Commission to adopt strict regulation over consumer broadband Internet.

But the topic long has been on the mind of University of Iowa law professor Nicholas Johnson.

Having served as a commissioner for the FCC from 1966 to 1973 — followed by stints as a presidential adviser for the White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services and head of a Washington-based media reform group — Johnson said he for years has held the position Obama espoused Monday.

“I have always felt it ought to be essentially controlled by Title II” of the Communications Act, Johnson told The Gazette on Tuesday.

Obama’s proposal urges the FCC to reclassify Internet service providers, like Comcast and Verizon, under Title II to give the commission power to prohibit them from blocking or slowing content and playing favorites with content providers.

The approach requires thinking about wired and wireless broadband service as a public utility, and Johnson said that’s how it should be. Ideally, he said, content and conduit would be totally separate — like the former AT&T network.

“Anyone who wants a phone gets a phone, everybody pays the same amount, and it’s not heavily subsidized,” Johnson said. “Once you got a telephone, you could say anything you wanted. That’s not saying you couldn’t break the law … but AT&T wasn’t going to get involved.”

That was a good model, according to Johnson, and it’s one that should be replicated for cable and Internet access. The Internet should be fair game for anyone to use any way they please, he said, and carriers shouldn’t be allowed to block, slow content, or prioritize service for those with the most money — offering faster Internet to providers willing to pay.

“They can’t say to Netflix and Amazon, we are going with just one of you, and it’s open bidding, and whoever pays the most to deliver the information in a timely way wins,” Johnson said. “We’ll just block the other one.”

That, he said, “would be really unfortunate.”

“Because the Internet holds so much promise for everybody,” Johnson said.

From entertainment and education to entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations, it offers an easy way to share information.

“There is no limit to what it can be,” Johnson said. “But the problem with turning some stuff entirely over to capitalism, with no regulation, is that it doesn’t best serve the public.”

From the global perspective, Johnson said, some countries have regulations that enable Internet speeds 10 times what Americans have at a much lower cost.

“We are really lagging behind the world as a result of turning the pricing and bandwidth decision over to these companies,” Johnson said.

The business of regulating monopolies or quasi-monopolies dates back to the late 1800s with a group of Iowa farmers upset about railroads playing favorites, according to Johnson. Those principals have been applied to other necessary services over time — like water, electricity and natural gas.

“They are regulated in a variety of ways, and one way is that they cannot play favorites,” Johnson said. “They have to provide service to everyone and charge the same rates.”

Part of the debate around Internet regulation is whether it’s considered a necessity.

“The question is, has the Internet taken on enough of those qualities,” Johnson said.

The FCC’s previous net neutrality rules were struck down by a federal appeals court in January, and the commission in May released a new proposal that would maintain light regulation. Obama on Monday said that proposal doesn’t go far enough.

Obama’s suggestions for the commission, an independent agency that doesn’t answer to the president, were praised by online content providers, like Netflix, but denounced by Internet providers, like Comcast, as being heavy-handed and likely to kill online investment and innovation.

Johnson said that although he’s in line with Obama, there is an issue with the president intervening with “such a heavy hand.” Before Johnson joined the FCC, he was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to be the U.S. Maritime Administrator.

After he started on the commission, Johnson said, his communication with the president stopped.

“He respected that independence,” Johnson said.

Although Obama this week made clear he understands the separation of powers, Johnson said Obama also made it clear that he’d like the FCC to “decide it my way.”

As to whether the commission will, Johnson said, “It’s hard to predict.”

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