Crunch Time

The Battle For the Internet Begins

This week, the FCC will reclassify the Internet as a utility. The cable companies will howl. And there are three reasons why they might win.

02.04.15 10:45 AM ET

It all comes down to this.

The Federal Communications Commission has proposed a plan to reclassify Internet service as a utility, allowing the agency to prohibit cable companies from making “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” of service in violation of a principle known as net neutrality.

The proposal is a win for supporters of an open Internet, almost all of whom agree that regulation is the best way to prevent what market forces would conspire to destroy—an Internet that hits everyone’s screen as quickly and equally as the water flows out of our faucets.

But the proposal will make cable companies and their lobbyists angry, which will make them desperate to stop the regulation, which should make you worry.

Net neutrality is not about commerce, economics, or politics. It’s about human rights. The Internet hacked a segmented world with equal access to a powerful medium. That’s led to a surge in expression and entrepreneurship that’s formed the foundation of a more connected society.

This is a historic fight, and we can’t lose. But here are three reasons why we might.

Net neutrality is incomprehensible. “The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America,” comedian John Oliver said in a popular Last Week Tonight with John Oliver segment on net neutrality. “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring,"

The worst thing about net neutrality is that you can’t explain it in five seconds. Oliver did the movement a favor by allowing his audience to laugh their way to comprehension.

But it took him 15 minutes to do it.

At least that June 2013 clip, which has now drawn nearly 7.8 million views on YouTube, made an impact. Public comments opposing an FCC plan to pass all too weak regulation flooded the agency’s website after it aired.

“Who knew NN would be fodder for comedy?” Anne Lucey, senior vice president of regulatory policy at CBS, emailed FCC employees in an email obtained by The Verge.

Talk may be cheap, but communication is everything. A free and open Internet sounds like something that shouldn’t be regulated, so that’s a barrier right there. The analogy of fast lanes and slow lanes seems to be working, as are simple explanatory videos like this New York Times clip that compares variable speeds of Internet service to packages buying their way onto the first delivery truck.

But even when they’re effective, many explanations are incomplete. Most stories I’ve run into use the example of streaming movies on services like Netflix to illustrate the consequences of giving cable companies their way. It’s a useful example because a) everyone loves entertainment and b) that spinning buffering icon lets you see what being on a slow lane would produce—and feel its frustration.

But leading with these examples makes it sound like the biggest thing at stake is how quickly you watch a TV show, which is so, so far from the point.

“If my message comes to you really slowly, and another person’s message comes quickly and directly,” as Times media critic David Carr put it, “who’s going to be heard?”

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We’re finding better ways to explain net neutrality, but we’re not finding them fast enough. California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo went as far as to lead a contest on Reddit last fall to rebrand net neutrality. The best the community could come up with was “Freedom Against Internet Restrictions.” And I haven’t seen the term since.

Net neutrality is invisible. Net neutrality is not a problem so much as the absence of a problem. It’s a principle that refers only indirectly to the danger it stands against.

It’s tough to rally support around something that hasn’t happened yet. What’s more, anticipation is not really the Internet’s way.

The Internet’s way is reaction. When we say that people are angry on Twitter or Facebook or Reddit, it’s usually because something outrageous has already happened, not because it could. You might say the 2012 protests against SOPA (a proposed anti-piracy law that would have allowed law enforcement to block entire domains over one piece of infringing content) were an exception, but barely. It took a lot of people a lot of work to explain what was at stake. And the message barely reached a mainstream audience.

Internet users are pummeled with so many fresh concerns about security and privacy that we’ve become numb to them. We take note, we even grumble, but as all those failed Facebook diasporas demonstrate—we don’t act. Things pop up on us and then we rail against it.

That won’t work here. If online outrage strikes, the law crawls. Stirrings in Washington make net neutrality an urgent issue . If we don’t wake people up to that now, there will be little use in channeling the inevitable outrage later.

It doesn’t help that so few people know what Internet infrastructure even looks like. We see phone lines. We see power lines. But the Internet is underground. It’s in the clouds. It’s easy to miss it, or take it for granted.

Which brings us to politics.

Net neutrality is up for grabs. When an issue is as vague and airy as net neutrality, it’s easy for someone with a pulpit to define it for his or her own ends. Ted Cruz called net neutrality “Obamacare for the Internet” last fall, which was so preposterous that his constituents called him out on it. That was encouraging.

But appeals to fear go on.

In November, President Obama urged the FCC to adopt the “strongest possible rules” to preserve information equality on the Internet. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler appears to have listened.

"I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC," Wheeler wrote in Wednesday morning post in Wired.

Word that Wheeler would take a light touch approach to regulation seem to have borne out: Shares of Comcast and Time Warner spiked Wednesday after Wheeler assured in the post that his proposal would include no "rate regulation, no tariffs, no last-mile unbundling."

Republicans in Congress have moved away from outright opposition to new rules on cable companies in recent months, and are now proposing legislation that would impose regulations without giving powers to the FCC to carry them out. But the legislation would also bar the FCC from reclassifying broadband Internet access as a utility, and how effective it would be at achieving its ends has been called into question.

An email addressed to conservatives from Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska appealed to an impressive package of fears—fear of Obama, censorship, surveillance, tyranny, even Russia—to make the argument that giving a federal agency the job of even lightly regulating cable companies would lead to a shutdown of free speech. Its title? “Putin and Obama in charge of the Internet.”

The weaker the public’s grasp of an issue, the more easily they can be persuaded to act against their own interests. The importance of net neutrality has never been easy to explain, but it’s never been more important to find a definitive way to do it.

Let the battle begin.