What network neutrality madness has happened today? Take a big breath
And we'll explain: Epic trolling, online pressure, window-dressing, serious wonk writing
It may have escaped your notice but America's broadband watchdog, the FCC, will vote on Thursday on a provision that would effectively undermine net neutrality protections in the US. People are – and this may shock you – not happy about it.
Yesterday, many of the internet's pioneers and early engineers signed a letter slamming the plan by FCC boss Ajit Pai to undo the safeguards, noting that it was based on a "flawed and factually inaccurate understanding of Internet technology" and represented "an imminent threat to the Internet."
Pai responded by announcing they had created a new dashboard that gives overall figures for the number of complaints, dockets, licensing requests, and so on, his federal regulator has received, accompanied by a big, green tick that represents what a great job the agency is doing.
This morning, an online campaign kicked off aimed at pressuring lawmakers in US Congress to take citizens' concerns about the planned vote seriously, and exert pressure on Pai and his fellow Republican commissioners at the FCC to call off the vote.
Ignoring for a second the slightly disturbing concept of asking Congress to lean on a semi-autonomous federal regulator, the idea behind this latest pressure campaign is to demonstrate what a "broken internet" would look like as a result of the rules being torn up.
As one example within the online push, Reddit has a pop-up for every visitor that pops by that notes the deeply flawed public comment process that the FCC has run on the issue and points to its analysis of the situation: "While the FCC struggles to sort the real from the fake in its own comment process, redditors are having real, human discussions about the costs and consequences of letting net neutrality die. Check out our analysis."
(The FCC is resisting New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's probe into the thousands upon thousands of fake comments submitted to the watchdog during its net-neutrality comment process.)
Others, such as Kickstarter, have displayed similar messages, and CloudFlare is offering apps that will display similar pop-ups. However, Big Tech – Google, Facebook et al – are staying away this time, as they did last time because they know the case is already lost, they can afford fast lanes and prioritization levies, and they don't want to rile up lawmakers who have started talking ominously about legislating against them.
But perhaps the most fun piece of criticism today has come from an FCC commissioner: Mignon Clyburn trolled her own organization by publishing a revised version of Pai's proposal with a very few words highlighted spelling out the sentence: "After further review of the record we affirm the 2015 Open Internet Order."
It's amusing, but you do have to wonder how on Earth we got to the point where the commissioners of a federal regulatory are throwing their hands up in the air and making jokes out of sheer desperation. Both Clyburn and fellow Democrat commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel have been writing blog posts, putting out formal FCC documents dissecting the current plan, and giving interviews outlining how dreadful the believe the situation is – but all seemingly to no avail.
There has been one tiny sliver of light on an issue that has devolved into name-calling: Senator John Thune (R-SD) actually proposed that people talk to one another and come up with a legislative solution.
"Congressional action is the only way to solve the endless back and forth on net neutrality rules that we’ve seen over the past several years," he argued, adding: "If my colleagues on the other side of the aisle and those who claim to support net neutrality rules want to enshrine protections for consumers with the backing of the law, I call on you today to join me in discussing legislation that would do just that."
Dream a dream
The concept of Congress functioning normally and coming up with much-needed law to address the vast changes in the internet and electronic communications in general is a fantasy that not even the most optimistic policy wonks seem willing to engage in right now. But it's nice to know that at least one senator imagines it's possible. Especially given that the last time Congress dealt with the telecoms in a broad sense was back in 1996.
Of course this is Congress, so we already have proposed legislation that is never going to pass but will allow lawmakers to argue with one another and accuse the other side of various nefarious acts. In this case, House Representative Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) has the Save Net Neutrality Act that would force the FCC to stop its current action and return to the current rules. It's going nowhere.
With just two days to go, and complaints getting louder and louder, today Pai and the FCC put out a sop to one serious concern about the FTC having to take over the subscriber complaints process for internet access issues. A draft memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the FCC and FTC was published, complete with news release, and is designed to "coordinate online consumer protection efforts following adoption of the Restoring Internet Freedom Order." In other words, if the FCC gets its way, it'll be on the FTC to handle people's gripes about crap internet connectivity.
The MoU comes in response to consumer rights groups pleading with the FCC to delay its vote because of an ongoing lawsuit that may see the FTC stripped of the right to implement any controls over broadband providers, effectively leaving millions of Americans with no protections whatsoever.
It's a cynical ploy, and one designed to let the FCC's management pretend they are dealing with a serious issue while steaming ahead with their proposals. FTC commissioner Terrell McSweeny called the MoU window dressing. And FCC Commissioner Clyburn called it "a confusing, lackluster, reactionary afterthought."