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Akst: The bygone era of net neutrality

One huge indicator of how messed up things are in America was largely unnoticed.

It happened Jan. 14 when a court ruling changed the Internet, and not in a good way. Except for techies, free-speech activists and telecommunications companies, few noticed.

The ruling slipped by me, too. I was trying to keep up with the situation and planned to write about this a couple of weeks ago, but I became preoccupied with not freezing to death.

The court ruling essentially killed what’s known as net neutrality.

A quick history: From the beginning of the modern Internet in the early 1990s until Jan. 14, online content, regardless of the Internet service provider or file size, bandwidth usage, etc., was delivered the same, i.e., neutrally. We paid ISPs like Comcast, AT&T or Verizon a monthly fee to access the Internet, but once online, we could go anywhere and everywhere with no additional fees or hindrances.

No more.

Net neutrality is about technology, greed, big money, politics, and the legal system. Not surprisingly, the difficult subject matter helps explain why the mainstream media doesn’t do the story justice.

Regardless, net neutrality worked great for everyone, including ISPs. Content was delivered, money was made, and online technology and commerce prospered. Well, I say “great,” but keep in mind that the United States lags far behind many other countries in Internet access, download speeds, fees or reliability. By global standards, we’re Internet chumps.

About 2010, large ISPs – notably Verizon and Comcast – began to argue that rules on net neutrality were unnecessary. They hinder innovation and besides, nobody would ever restrict access to the Internet.

They called net neutrality proponents paranoid. “Net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem,” Randy Milch, Verizon’s top lawyer, said in 2010. The next year, Verizon promised not to restrict or prevent any lawful content.

So adamant was it in this promise that Verizon sued the Federal Communications Commission, the main government agency in charge of keeping the Internet accessible via the FCC’s “Open Internet Order.”

On Jan. 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down large parts of that order.

As of now, Internet service providers can slow, delay, filter or block online content. We can’t stop them, and some of us lack the option to select another service provider.

Even before the ruling, Verizon had made its intent clear. In court arguments in September, Verizon lawyers said that, indeed, the company plans to charge new Internet tolls and favor certain content at the expense of other sites and services.

In response to questions from the three-judge panel, Helgi Walker, a lawyer for Verizon, said, “I’m authorized to state from my client today that, but for these rules, we would be exploring those types of arrangements.”

Further, Walker said Verizon should be able to block websites or services that don’t pay the company’s proposed tolls. “I think we should be able to; in the world I’m positing, you would be able to.”

Is there hope? Yes. The ruling does not prohibit the FCC from reclassifying broadband ISPs as “common carriers,” which could restore net neutrality rules. It’s possible that the FCC will do that, but that’s the future, not the present, and its not clear just how easy that process might be.

The present is that net neutrality is comatose.

Is net neutrality really such a big deal? Listen to this guy:

“I think the people who talk about dismantling – threatening – net neutrality don’t appreciate how important it has been for us to have an independent market for productivity and for applications on the Internet.”

Who said that? Sir Tim Berners-Lee, one of the co-inventors of the World Wide Web.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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